Effects of grassland degradation on ecological stoichiometry of soil ecosystems on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau

Ying Wang, Ze Ren, Panpan Ma, Zhaomin Wang, Decao Niu, Hua Fu, James J. Elser

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99 Scopus citations


Grasslands across the world are being degraded due to the impacts of overgrazing and climate change. However, the influences of grassland degradation on carbon (C), nitrogen (N), and phosphorus (P) dynamics and stoichiometry in soil ecosystems are not well studied, especially at high elevations where ongoing climate change is most pronounced. Ecological stoichiometry facilitates understanding the biogeochemical cycles of multiple elements by studying their balance in ecological systems. This study sought to assess the responses of these soil elements to grassland degradation in the Qinghai Lake watershed on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau (QTP), which has an average elevation of >4000 m and is experiencing serious grassland degradation due to its sensitivity and vulnerability to external disturbances. Substituting space for time, we quantified normalized difference vegetation index to gauge grassland degradation. C, N, and P concentrations and their molar ratios in soil and in soil microbial biomass were also measured. The results showed that grassland degradation decreased the concentrations of C and N, as well as the ratios of C:P and N:P in soil. The soil became relatively more P rich and thus N limitation is anticipated to be more apparent with grassland degradation. Moreover, C, N, and P concentrations in soil microbial biomass decreased with increased grassland degradation. C:N:P ratios of soil microbial biomass were highly constrained, suggesting that soil microorganisms exhibited a strong homeostatic behavior, while the variations of microbial biomass C:N:P ratios suggest changes in microbial activities and community structure. Overall, our study revealed that grassland degradation differentially affects soil C, N, and P, leading to decreased C:N and N:P in soil, as well as decreased C, N, and P concentrations in soil microbial biomass. This study provides insights from a stoichiometric perspective into microbial and biogeochemical responses of grassland ecosystems as they undergo degradation on the QTP.

Original languageEnglish
Article number137910
JournalScience of the Total Environment
StatePublished - Jun 20 2020


This work was supported by the National Natural Science Foundation of China ( 41671106 ). We are grateful to Yanli Feng and Chenxi Zhang for assistance in the field, and to Shuzhen Nan, Chunping Zhang, and Nan Wang for assistance in the laboratory work. We give special thanks to Ze Ren's committee members Winsor Lowe, Ben Colman, Scott Miller, and Matthew Church for valuable comments and suggestions.

FundersFunder number
National Natural Science Foundation of China41671106


    • Grassland degradation
    • Homeostasis
    • Microbial biomass
    • NDVI
    • Stoichiometry


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