Aboveground resilience to species loss but belowground resistance to nitrogen addition in a montane plant community

Decades of empirical work have demonstrated how dominant plant species and nitrogen fertilization can influence the structure and function of plant communities. More recent studies have examined the interplay between these factors, but few such studies use an explicit trait-based framework. In this study, we use an explicit trait-based approach to identify potential mechanisms for community-level responses and to test ecological niche theory. We experimentally manipulated plant communities (control, -dominant species, -random biomass) and nitrogen (N) inputs (control, +organic N, +inorganic N) in a fully factorial design. We predicted that traits related to plants' ability to take up different forms of soil N would differ between dominant and subordinate species, resulting in interactive effects of dominant species loss and N fertilization on plant community structure and function. The study took place in a montane meadow in the Rocky Mountains, Colorado, USA. After four years, the plant community in removal plots converged toward a species composition whose leaf and root functional traits resembled those of the previously removed dominant species. Ecosystem productivity generally increased with N addition: soil carbon efflux was similar to 50% greater when either form of N was added, while inorganic N addition increased aboveground biomass production by similar to 60% relative to controls. The increase in production was mediated by increased average height, leaf mass:area ratio and leaf dry matter content in plant communities to which we added inorganic N. Contrary to our predictions, there were no interactive effects of N fertilization and dominant species loss on plant community structure or ecosystem function. The plant community composition in this study exhibited resistance to soil N addition and, given the functional convergence we observed, was resilient to species loss. Together, our results indicate that the ability of species to compensate functionally for species loss confers resilience and maintains diversity in montane meadow communities.