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Shifts in plant composition mediate grazing effects on carbon cycling in grasslands

Cite this dataset

Liang, Maowei et al. (2020). Shifts in plant composition mediate grazing effects on carbon cycling in grasslands [Dataset]. Dryad.



Carbon cycling in grasslands can be impacted by livestock grazing, partially as an indirect result of herbivory-induced compositional shifts in the plant community. However, the underlying mechanisms of how these shifts impact carbon cycling are not well documented.

We conducted a long-term grazing experiment with four sheep stocking rates in the semi-arid grasslands of Inner Mongolia, China, to examine grazing effects on the ratio of C3 to C4 species (C3:C4), shoot biomass, root biomass, root:shoot, soil respiration, soil C, soil N, and soil C:N between 2014 and 2018. We explored the responses of these carbon metrics to C3:C4 under different grazing treatments and the mechanisms driving grazing-induced carbon loss using structural equation models.

Livestock grazing directly shifted plant community composition (i.e., increasing C3:C4) and reduced vegetation carbon (i.e., shoot biomass), whereas grazing effects on belowground carbon were mediated by the interactions of the soil profile (i.e., depth-dependence) and year-to-year variation (e.g., rainfall regulation). Grazing-induced increases in C3:C4 suppressed soil carbon loss by inhibiting the rate of soil respiration. Furthermore, grazing intensity indirectly altered these relationships. Specifically, C3:C4 was positively related to shoot biomass and negatively associated with root:shoot, soil C, and soil N, whereas these relationships were only significant in no-grazed plots. Meanwhile, soil respiration was negatively associated with C3:C4, soil C, soil N, and soil C:N, but a positive relationship with shoot biomass; these relationships were significant only in grazed-plots.

Synthesis and applications. Our findings emphasize the functional linkages between community characteristics and ecosystem processes, i.e. shifts in plant community composition play a key role in regulating grassland carbon cycling. These results provide a useful field-observed resource for model development and could improve the guidelines for livestock management and policies regarding climate mitigation.



Details of the methods can be found in the manuscripts.


National Key Research and Development Program of China, Award: 2016YFC0500503

Ministry of Education Key Laboratory of Ecology and Resources Use of the Mongolian Plateau, Award: KF2020003

NASA Land-Cover and Land-Use Change (LCLUC) Program, Award: 80NSSC20K0410

NASA Land-Cover and Land-Use Change (LCLUC) Program, Award: 80NSSC20K0410