Lack of nitrogen cycling in the Atacama Desert


MESQUITE (Prosopis) trees growing in the rainless region of the Atacama Desert produce leaves that abscise and accumulate on a concrete-like carbonate surface, often attaining litter depths of 45 cm. The virtual lack of surface moisture inhibits leaf decomposi-tion, and prevents cycling of nitrogen, the mineral most often limiting plant growth. Leaves in the midpoint of a litter profile were aged to pre-bomb dates (older than 1950) and had both high nitrogen concentrations and a carbon to nitrogen ratio comparable to that of live leaves. The thick carbonate layer prevents root growth into the litter. Prosopis appear to persist by having roots that fix nitrogen in moist subsurface layers and by extracting water and other nutrients from ground water, allowing plants to persist in an ecosystem in which there is no nitrogen cycling.

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Ehleringer, J., Mooney, H., Rundel, P. et al. Lack of nitrogen cycling in the Atacama Desert. Nature 359, 316–318 (1992).

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