Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

Vascular plant success in a warming Antarctic may be due to efficient nitrogen acquisition


For the past 50 years there has been rapid warming in the maritime Antarctic1,2,3, with concurrent, and probably temperature-mediated, proliferation of the two native plants, Antarctic pearlwort (Colobanthus quitensis) and especially Antarctic hair grass (Deschampsia antarctica)4,5,6,7,8,9,10. In many terrestrial ecosystems at high latitudes, nitrogen (N) supply regulates primary productivity11,12,13. Although the predominant view is that only inorganic and amino acid N are important sources of N for angiosperms, most N enters soil as protein. Maritime Antarctic soils have large stocks of proteinaceous N, which is released slowly as decomposition is limited by low temperatures. Consequently, an ability to acquire N at an early stage of availability is key to the success of photosynthetic organisms. Here we show that D. antarctica can acquire N through its roots as short peptides, produced at an early stage of protein decomposition, acquiring N over three times faster than as amino acid, nitrate or ammonium, and more than 160 times faster than the mosses with which it competes. Efficient acquisition of the N released in faster decomposition of soil organic matter as temperatures rise14 may give D. antarctica an advantage over competing mosses that has facilitated its recent proliferation in the maritime Antarctic.

Access options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

Figure 1
Figure 2
Figure 3: Rates of N uptake by D. antarctica, S. uncinata and soil microbes.


  1. 1

    Vaughan, D. G. et al. Recent rapid regional climate warming on the Antarctic Peninsula. Clim. Change 60, 243–274 (2003).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. 2

    Quayle, W. C., Peck, L. S., Peat, H., Ellis-Evans, J. C. & Harrigan, P. R. Extreme responses to climate change in Antarctic lakes. Science 295, 645–645 (2002).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  3. 3

    Adams, B. et al. in Antarctic Climate Change and the Environment (eds Turner, J. et al.) 183–298 (Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research, Scott Polar Research Institute, 2009).

    Google Scholar 

  4. 4

    Fowbert, J. A. & Smith, R. I. L. Rapid population increases in native vascular plants in the Argentine Islands, Antarctic Peninsula. Arctic Alpine Res. 26, 290–296 (1994).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. 5

    Gerighausen, U., Bräutigam, K., Mustafa, O. & Peter, H-U. in Antarctic Biology in a Global Context (eds Huiskes, A. H. L. et al.) 79–83 (Backhuys, 2003).

    Google Scholar 

  6. 6

    Grobe, C. W., Ruhland, T. & Day, T. A. A new population of Colobanthus quitensis near Arthur Harbor, Antarctica: Correlating recruitment with warmer summer temperatures. Arctic Alpine Res. 29, 217–221 (1997).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. 7

    Convey, P. & Smith, R. I. L. Responses of terrestrial Antarctic ecosystems to climate change. Plant Ecol. 182, 1–10 (2006).

    Google Scholar 

  8. 8

    Day, T. A., Ruhland, C. T. & Xiong, F. S. Warming increases aboveground plant biomass and C stocks in vascular-plant-dominated Antarctic tundra. Glob. Change Biol. 14, 1827–1843 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. 9

    Smith, R. I. L. Vascular plants as bioindicators of regional warming in Antarctica. Oecologia 99, 322–328 (1994).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. 10

    Xiong, F. S., Mueller, E. C. & Day, T. A. Photosynthetic and respiratory acclimation and growth response of Antarctic vascular plants to contrasting temperature regimes. Am. J. Bot. 87, 700–710 (2000).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  11. 11

    Vitousek, P. M. & Howarth, R. W. Nitrogen limitation on land and in the sea: How can it occur? Biogeochemistry 13, 87–115 (1991).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. 12

    Liu, L. & Greaver, T. L. A global perspective on below-ground carbon dynamics under nitrogen enrichment. Ecol. Lett. 13, 819–828 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. 13

    Chapin, F. S., Moilanen, L. & Kielland, K. Preferential use of organic nitrogen for growth by a non-mycorrhizal arctic sedge. Nature 361, 150–153 (1993).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  14. 14

    Wynn-Williams, D. D. Comparative respirometry of peat decomposition on a latitudinal transect in the maritime Antarctic. Polar Biol. 3, 173–181 (1984).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. 15

    Parnikoza, I. et al. Current status of the Antarctic herb tundra formation in the Central Argentine Islands. Glob. Change Biol. 15, 1685–1693 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. 16

    Smith, R. I. L. Plant succession and re-exposed moss banks on a deglaciated headland in Arthur Harbour, Anvers Island. Br. Antarct. Surv. B 51, 193–199 (1982).

    Google Scholar 

  17. 17

    Corner, R. W. M. Studies in Colobanthus quitensis (Kunth) Bartl. and Deschampsia antarctica Desv. IV. Distribution and reproductive performance in the Argentine Islands. Br. Antarct. Surv. B 26, 41–50 (1973).

    Google Scholar 

  18. 18

    Smith, R. I. L. Vegetation of the South Orkneys with particular reference to Signy Island. Br. Antarct. Surv. Sci. Rep. 68, (1972).

  19. 19

    Fenton, J. H. C. & Smith, R. I. L. Distribution, composition and general characteristics of the moss banks of the maritime Antarctic. Br. Antarct. Surv. B 51, 215–236 (1982).

    Google Scholar 

  20. 20

    Kozeretska, I. A. et al. Development of Antarctic herb tundra vegetation near Arctowski station, King George Island. Polar Sci. 3, 254–261 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. 21

    Edwards, J. A. Studies in Colobanthus quitensis (Kunth) Bartl. and Deschampsia antarctica Desv. V. Distribution, ecology and vegetative performance on Signy Island. Br. Antarct. Surv. B 28, 11–28 (1972).

    Google Scholar 

  22. 22

    Davey, M. C. & Rothery, P. Interspecific variation in respiratory and photosynthetic parameters in Antarctic bryophytes. New Phytol. 137, 231–240 (1997).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. 23

    Xiong, F. S., Ruhland, C. T. & Day, T. A. Photosynthetic response of the Antarctic vascular plants Colobanthus quitensis and Deschampsia antarctica. Physiol. Plant. 106, 276–286 (1999).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  24. 24

    Smith, V. R. & Steenkamp, N. Soil nitrogen transformations on a subantarctic island. Antarct. Sci. 4, 41–50 (1992).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. 25

    Näsholm, T., Kielland, K. & Ganateg, U. Uptake of organic nitrogen by plants. New Phytol. 182, 31–48 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. 26

    Komarova, N. Y. et al. AtPTR1 and AtPTR5 transport dipeptides in planta. Plant. Physiol. 148, 856–869 (2008).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  27. 27

    Upson, R., Read, D. J. & Newsham, K. K. Nitrogen form influences the response of Deschampsia antarctica to dark septate root endophytes. Mycorrhiza 20, 1–11 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. 28

    Owen, A. G. & Jones, D. L. Competition for amino acids between wheat roots and rhizosphere microorganisms and the role of amino acids in plant N acquisition. Soil Biol. Biochem. 33, 651–657 (2001).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  29. 29

    Jones, D. L., Owen, A. G. & Farrar, J. F. Simple method to enable the high resolution determination of total free amino acids in soil solutions and soil extracts. Soil Biol. Biochem. 34, 1893–1902 (2002).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  30. 30

    Miranda, K. M., Espey, M. G. & Wink, D. A. A rapid, simple, spectrophotometric method for simultaneous detection of nitrate and nitrite. Nitric Oxide 5, 62–71 (2001).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  31. 31

    Mulvaney, R. L. in Methods of Soil Analysis (ed. Sparks, D. L.) 1123–1184 (Soil Science of America, 1990).

    Google Scholar 

  32. 32

    Hill, P. W., Farrar, J. F. & Jones, D. L. Decoupling of microbial glucose uptake and mineralization in soil. Soil Biol. Biochem. 40, 616–624 (2008).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


We thank P. Torode for assistance with fieldwork, B. Grail, F. Guyver and D. Rowlands for analytical assistance, J. Gibbons for advice on statistical methods, D. Murphy, P. Clode and Z. Solaiman for microscopy and British Antarctic Survey staff who are too numerous to mention by name. Special thanks to J. Roberts. This work was funded by UK Natural Environment Research Council grant AFI8/08.

Author information




D.L.J., P.W.H., J.F., K.K.N., D.W.H and R.D.B. conceived the investigation based on preliminary data collected by P.R. P.W.H. carried out the fieldwork, experiments and data analysis. H.G. carried out IRMS analysis. All authors discussed results and contributed to the preparation of the manuscript.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Paul W. Hill.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Supplementary information

Supplementary information (PDF 565 kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Hill, P., Farrar, J., Roberts, P. et al. Vascular plant success in a warming Antarctic may be due to efficient nitrogen acquisition. Nature Clim Change 1, 50–53 (2011).

Download citation

Further reading


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing