Fire is a critical force in structuring ecosystems, but it also removes substantial amounts of nitrogen (N), which can limit plant growth. Biological N fixation (BNF) may alleviate fire-induced N deficiencies that inhibit ecosystem recovery, yet if and how BNF achieves this under frequent fire is unclear. This problem is further complicated in the context of modern human influences (such as land-use history and atmospheric N deposition), which may confound the relationship between fire and fixation. Here, we investigate whether BNF supplies the N necessary to replace fire-induced N losses in restored longleaf pine savannas, and, if so, what factors control fixation. We established 54 1-ha plots of longleaf pine capturing 227 yr of forest recovery and a broad gradient of fire return interval (1.5–20 yr) at two sites in the southeastern United States. We quantified N fixation from three functional groups (herbaceous legumes, soil crusts, and asymbiotic N fixing bacteria), N losses from individual fire events and ecosystem dynamics of N supply and demand. We found that BNF rates were low but sustained over stand age but were substantially below estimated rates of atmospheric N deposition. While fire temporarily stimulated BNF from herbaceous legumes, neither BNF nor atmospheric N deposition were sufficient to balance N losses from fire and soil N stocks declined over stand age. However, rates of N mineralization were surprisingly high and tree productivity was unrelated to N availability, questioning the importance of N limitation in these temperate savannas. While it is possible that progressive N losses signal a decline in ecosystem resiliency, N enrichment from multiple land-use transitions and anthropogenic N deposition may suppress rates of BNF or diminish its importance as a long-term N balancing source in these pyrogenic ecosystems. In this case, fire may be acting as relief mechanism, critical for returning the modern longleaf pine landscape to its historical oligotrophic condition.
All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes
- Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
- ecosystem recovery
- longleaf pine
- nitrogen balance
- nitrogen cycle
- nitrogen fixation