Interpretation of nitrogen isotope signatures using the NIFTE model


Nitrogen cycling in forest soils has been intensively studied for many years because nitrogen is often the limiting nutrient for forest growth. Complex interactions between soil, microbes, and plants and the consequent inability to correlate δ15N changes with biologic processes have limited the use of natural abundances of nitrogen isotopes to study nitrogen (N) dynamics. During an investigation of N dynamics along the 250-year-old successional sequence in Glacier Bay, Alaska, United States, we observed several puzzling isotopic patterns, including a consistent decline in δ15N of the late successional dominant Picea at older sites, a lack of agreement between mineral N δ15N and foliar δ15N, and high isotopic signatures for mycorrhizal fungi. In order to understand the mechanisms creating these patterns, we developed a model of N dynamics and N isotopes (Nitrogen Isotope Fluxes in Terrestrial Ecosystems, NIFTE), which simulated the major transformations of the N cycle and predicted isotopic signatures of different plant species and soil pools. Comparisons with field data from five sites along the successional sequence indicated that NIFTE can duplicate observed patterns in δ15N of soil, foliage, and mineral N over time. Different scenarios that could account for the observed isotopic patterns were tested in model simulations. Possible mechanisms included increased isotopic fractionation on mineralization, fractionation during the transfer of nitrogen from mycorrhizal fungi to plants, variable fractionation on uptake by mycorrhizal fungi compared to plants, no fractionation on mycorrhizal transfer, and elimination of mycorrhizal fungi as a pool in the model. The model results suggest that fractionation during mineralization must be small (˜2‰), and that no fractionation occurs during plant or mycorrhizal uptake. A net fractionation during mycorrhizal transfer of nitrogen to vegetation provided the best fit to isotopic data on mineral N, plants, soils, and mycorrhizal fungi. The model and field results indicate that the importance of mycorrhizal fungi to N uptake is probably less under conditions of high N availability. Use of this model should encourage a more rigorous assessment of isotopic signatures in ecosystem studies and provide insights into the biologic transformations which affect those signatures. This should lead to an enhanced understanding of some of the fundamental controls on nitrogen dynamics.


Earth Systems Research Center

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© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 1999