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Volume 1 (2001), Pages 505-513
Research Article

Factors Influencing Spatial Variability in Nitrogen Processing in Nitrogen-Saturated Soils

Department of Biological Sciences, Marshall University, Huntington, WV 25755-2510, USA

Academic Editor: Joe Wisniewski

Copyright © 2001 Frank S. Gilliam et al.


Nitrogen (N) saturation is an environmental concern for forests in the eastern U.S. Although several watersheds of the Fernow Experimental Forest (FEF), West Virginia exhibit symptoms of N saturation, many watersheds display a high degree of spatial variability in soil N processing. This study examined the effects of temperature on net N mineralization and nitrification in N-saturated soils from FEF, and how these effects varied between high N-processing vs. low N-processing soils collected from two watersheds, WS3 (fertilized with [NH4]2SO4) and WS4 (untreated control). Samples of forest floor material (O1 horizon) and mineral soil (to a 5-cm depth) were taken from three subplots within each of four plots that represented the extremes of highest and lowest rates of net N mineralization and nitrification (hereafter, high N and low N, respectively) of untreated WS4 and N-treated WS3: control/low N, control/high N, N-treated/low N, N-treated/high N. Forest floor material was analyzed for carbon (C), lignin, and N. Subsamples of mineral soil were extracted immediately with 1 N KCl and analyzed for NH4+ and NO3- to determine preincubation levels. Extracts were also analyzed for Mg, Ca, Al, and pH. To test the hypothesis that the lack of net nitrification observed in field incubations on the untreated/low N plot was the result of absence of nitrifier populations, we characterized the bacterial community involved in N cycling by amplification of amoA genes. Remaining soil was incubated for 28 d at three temperatures (10, 20, and 30°C), followed by 1 NKCl extraction and analysis for NH4+ and NO3-. Net nitrification was essentially 100% of net N mineralization for all samples combined. Nitrification rates from lab incubations at all temperatures supported earlier observations based on field incubations. At 30°C, rates from N-treated/high N were three times those of N-treated/low N. Highest rates were found for untreated/high N (two times greater than those of N-treated/high N), whereas untreated/low N exhibited no net nitrification. However, soils exhibiting no net nitrification tested positive for presence of nitrifying bacteria, causing us to reject our initial hypothesis. We hypothesize that nitrifier populations in such soil are being inhibited by a combination of low Ca to Al ratios in mineral soil and allelopathic interactions with mycorrhizae of ericaceous species in the herbaceous layer.