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Resource-based niches provide a basis for plant species diversity and dominance in arctic tundra


Ecologists have long been intrigued by the ways co-occurring species divide limiting resources. Such resource partitioning, or niche differentiation, may promote species diversity by reducing competition1,2. Although resource partitioning is an important determinant of species diversity and composition in animal communities3, its importance in structuring plant communities has been difficult to resolve4. This is due mainly to difficulties in studying how plants compete for belowground resources5. Here we provide evidence from a 15N-tracer field experiment showing that plant species in a nitrogen-limited, arctic tundra community were differentiated in timing, depth and chemical form of nitrogen uptake, and that species dominance was strongly correlated with uptake of the most available soil nitrogen forms. That is, the most productive species used the most abundant nitrogen forms, and less productive species used less abundant forms. To our knowledge, this is the first documentation that the composition of a plant community is related to partitioning of differentially available forms of a single limiting resource.

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Figure 1: Aboveground uptake of available soil nitrogen by the five most common species in tussock tundra.
Figure 2: Aboveground net primary production (mean ± standard error) of the five most common species in tussock tundra.


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We thank C. Catricala, R. Brooks, J. Compton, J. Gregg, L. Gough, T. Nasholm, S. Perakis, D. Phillips and P. Rygiewicz for comments. This work was supported by the National Science Foundation and US Environmental Protection Agency.

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Correspondence to Robert B. McKane.

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McKane, R., Johnson, L., Shaver, G. et al. Resource-based niches provide a basis for plant species diversity and dominance in arctic tundra. Nature 415, 68–71 (2002).

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