Nitrogen niches revealed through species and functional group removal in a boreal shrub community

Michael J. Gundale, Fujio Hyodo, Marie Charlotte Nilsson, David A. Wardle

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

28 Citations (Scopus)


Most theories attempting to explain the coexistence of species in local communities make fundamental assumptions regarding whether neighbors exhibit competitive, neutral, or positive resource-use interactions; however, few long-term data from naturally assembled plant communities exist to test these assumptions. We utilized a 13-year experiment consisting of factorial removal of three shrub species (Vaccinium myrtillus, V. vitis-idaea, and Empetrum hermaphroditum) and factorial removal of two functional groups (tree roots and feathermosses) to assess how neighbors affect N acquisition and growth of each of the three shrub species. The removal plots were established on each of 30 lake islands in northern Sweden that form a natural gradient of resource availability. We tested the hypotheses that: (1) the presence of functionally similar neighbors would reduce shrubNacquisition through competition for a sharedNresource; (2) the removal of functional groups would affect shrub N acquisition by altering the breadth of their niches; and (3) soil fertility would influence the effects of neighbor removals.We found that the removal of functionally similar neighbors (i.e., other shrub species) usually resulted in higher biomass and biomassN,with the strength of these effects varying stronglywith site fertility. Shrub species removals never resulted in altered stableN isotope ratios (d15N), suggesting that the niche breadth of the three shrubs was unaffected by the presence of neighboring shrub species. In the functional group removal experiment, we found positive effects of feather moss removal on V. myrtillus biomass and biomass N, and negative effects on E. hermaphrotium N concentration and V. vitis-idaea biomass and biomass N. Tree root removal also caused a significant shift in foliar d15N of V. myrtillus and altered the d15N, biomass, and biomass N of E. hermaphroditum. Collectively, these results show that the resource acquisition and niche breadth of the three shrub species are often affected by neighbors, and further that both the identity of neighbors and site fertility strongly determine whether these interactions are positive, negative, or neutral. These findings have implications for understanding species coexistence and the reciprocal relationships between productivity and species diversity in this ecosystem.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1695-1706
Number of pages12
Issue number7
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2012


  • Boreal shrubs
  • Diversity theory
  • Niche breadth
  • Niche plasticity
  • Northern Sweden
  • Plant competition
  • Removal experiment
  • Resource use complementarity
  • Species coexistence
  • Stable N isotope ratio

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


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