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The distribution of soil nutrients with depth: global patterns and the imprint of plants

Jobbágy, EG, RB Jackson
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To understand the importance of plants in structuring the vertical distributions of soil nutrients, we explored nutrient distributions in the top meter of soil for more than 10,000 profiles across a range of ecological conditions. Hypothesizing that vertical nutrient distributions are dominated by plant cycling relative to leaching, weathering dissolution, and atmospheric deposition, we examined three predictions: 1) that the nutrients that are most limiting for plants would have the shallowest average distributions across ecosystems, 2) that the vertical distribution of a limiting nutrient would be shallower as the nutrient became more scarce, and 3) that along a gradient of soil types with increasing weathering-leaching intensity, limiting nutrients would be relatively more abundant due to preferential cycling by plants. Globally, the ranking of vertical distributions among nutrients was shallowest to deepest in the following order: P>K>Ca>Mg>Na=Cl=SO4. Nutrients strongly cycled by plants, such as P and K, were more concentrated in the topsoil (upper 20 cm) than were nutrients usually less limiting for plants such as Na and Cl. The topsoil concentrations of all nutrients except Na were higher in the soil profiles where the elements were more scarce. Along a gradient of weathering-leaching intensity (Aridisols to Mollisols to Ultisols), total base saturation decreased but the relative contribution of exchangeable K+ to base saturation increased. These patterns are difficult to explain without considering the upward transport of nutrients by plant uptake and cycling. Shallower distributions for P and K, together with negative associations between abundance and topsoil accumulation, support the idea that plant cycling exerts a dominant control on the vertical distribution of the most limiting elements for plants (those required in high amounts in relation to soil supply). Plant characteristics like tissue stoichiometry, biomass cycling rates, above- and belowground allocation, root distributions, and maximum rooting depth may all play an important role in shaping nutrient profiles. Such vertical patterns yield insight into the patterns and processes of nutrient cycling through time.

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