Overstory community composition and elevated atmospheric CO < inf> 2 and O < inf> 3 modify understory biomass production and nitrogen acquisition

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College of Forest Resources and Environmental Science


Elevated atmospheric CO2 and O3 have the potential to affect the primary productivity of the forest overstory, but little attention has been given to potential responses of understory vegetation. Our objective was to document the effects of elevated atmospheric CO2 and O 3 on understory species composition and biomass and to quantify nitrogen (N) acquisition by the understory vegetation. The research took place at the aspen free-air CO2 and O3 enrichment (FACE) experiment, which has four treatments (control, elevated CO2, elevated O3, and elevated CO2+O3) and three tree communities: aspen, aspen/birch, and aspen/maple. In June 2003, each FACE ring was uniformly labeled with 15N applied as NH4Cl. Understory biomass was harvested in June of 2004 for productivity, N, and 15N measurements, and photosynthetically active radiation (PAR) was measured below the canopy. The understory was divided into five species groups, which dominate in this young aggrading forest: Taraxacum officinale (dandelion), Solidago sp. (goldenrod), Trifolium repens and T. pretense (clover), various species from the Poaceae family (grass), and composited minor components (CMC). Understory species composition, total and individual species biomass, N content, and 15N recovery showed overstory community effects, but the direct effects of treatments was masked by the high variability of these data. Total understory biomass increased with increasing light, and thus was greatest under the open canopy of the aspen/maple community, as well as the more open canopy of the elevated O3 treatments. Species were different from one another in terms of 15N recovery, with virtually no 15N recovered in clover and the greatest amount recovered in dandelion. Thus, understory species composition and biomass appear to be driven by the structure of the overstory community, which is determined by the tree species present and their response to the treatments. However, N acquisition by the understory does not appear to be affected by either the overstory community or the treatments at this point.

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Plant and Soil