Stoichiometric shifts in surface soils over broad geographical scales: evidence from China's grasslands

Yuanhe Yang*, Jingyun Fang, Chengjun Ji, Arindam Datta, Pin Li, Wenhong Ma, Anwar Mohammat, Haihua Shen, Huifeng Hu, Benjamin O. Knapp, Pete Smith

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

74 Citations (Scopus)


Aim The identification of stoichiometric flexibility is crucial for understanding carbon-nitrogen-phosphorus (C-N-P) interactions and ecosystem dynamics under a changing environment. However, current evidence of stoichiometric flexibility mainly comes from manipulation experiments, with little evidence from large-scale observations.

Location Alpine and temperate grasslands across northern China.

Methods Using soil profiles derived from a historical national soil inventory and a contemporary regional soil survey across China's grasslands, we examined temporal changes in topsoil C:N:P ratios over recent decades.

Results Topsoil C: N ratios of five major grassland types exhibited some flexibility but did not show significant changes over the sampling interval. Non-significant changes in topsoil C: N ratios were observed both in alpine grasslands on the Tibetan Plateau and in temperate grasslands on the Inner Mongolian Plateau. Consistent with the relatively stable C: N ratios, the slope of the soil C-N stoichiometric relationship did not differ significantly between the two sampling periods. Soil N: P ratios in the surface layer increased significantly over the sampling interval, however, with an overall increase of 0.60 (95% confidence interval 0.58-0.62). A larger increase in soil N: P ratio was found in temperate grasslands on the Inner Mongolian Plateau than in alpine grasslands on the Tibetan Plateau. Moreover, the slope of the soil N-P stoichiometric relationship in these grassland ecosystems became steeper over the sampling interval.

Main conclusions These results demonstrate the stability of topsoil C: N stoichiometry but variability in N: P stoichiometry over broad geographical scales, highlighting that soil C and N are tightly coupled, but N and P tend to be decoupled under a changing environment.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)947-955
Number of pages9
JournalGlobal Ecology and Biogeography
Issue number8
Early online date20 Apr 2014
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2014

Bibliographical note

We thank members of the Peking University Sampling Campaign Team for their help with fieldwork and also appreciate Ian Wright and three anonymous referees for their thoughtful comments on an earlier draft of the manuscript. This study was sponsored by the National Basic Research Program of China on Global Change (2014CB954001 and 2010CB950600), the National Natural Science Foundation of China (31322011, 41371213 and 31021001) and the Thousand Young Talents Program.


  • carbon-nitrogen-phosphorus interactions
  • carbon:nitrogen:phosphorus ratio
  • ecological stoichiometry
  • grassland ecosystems
  • soil inventory
  • stoichiometric flexibility
  • terrestrial ecosystems
  • nitrogen deposition
  • elevated CO2
  • microbial biomass
  • inorganic carbon
  • global change
  • phosphorus
  • limitation
  • decomposition
  • patterns


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