Plants of different growth form may utilize soil nutrients in various spatial distributions through different scales of foraging. In this study we evaluated the ability of 6 species commonly found in the Great Basin to utilize nitrogen (N) distributed in different patterns. Three growth forms were represented by these 6 species.

We applied 15N-labeled nitrogen in concentrated patches and over broader uniform areas (at approximately 1% the concentration of the patches) in large, outdoor sand-culture plots. Six weeks after N was applied, 2 plants adjacent to the patch (Patch Treatment) and 2 plants within the uniform application (Uniform Treatment) were harvested. One plant 35–45 cm from both applications (Distant Treatment) was also harvested. The proportion of application-derived N in the leaf N pool was calculated and the mass of N this represented was estimated.

Winter annual species Aegilops cylindrical and Bromus tectorum utilized the concentrated patches to a greater extent than did perennial species. The mass of N acquired by Patch-Treatment annual plants was significantly greater than by Uniform- and Distant-Treatment plants. Annual plants in the Distant Treatment had very little application-derived N in their leaf tissue. The perennial tussock grasses Agropyron desertorum and Pseudoroegneria spicata differed in utilization of the N applications. Agropyron acquired a greater quantity of N from patches than from uniform applications, and Distant-Treatment plants acquired very little from treatment applications. On the other hand, Pseudoroegneria utilized N in the 3 treatments equally. The shrub species Artemisia tridentata ssp. vaseyana and Chrysothamnus nauseosus also differed in their pattern of N acquisition. There were no differences in quantity of N acquired by plants from different treatments for Chrysothamnus; all treatment plants acquired appreciable amounts of N from the applications. In contrast, Artemisia tridentata was very effective at acquiring large quantities of N from patches relative to Uniform- and Distant-Treatment plants, and yet there was still appreciable acquisition of applied N by Distant-Treatment Artemisia plants.

We compared our results for these species in utilizing N patches with their ability to utilize N pulses (Bilbrough and Caldwell 1997). The annual grasses, Artemisia, and Agropyron were capable of effectively acquiring N from both pulses and patches, whereas Pseudoroegneria was effective in exploiting pulses but not patches. Chrysothamnus was generally not responsive to either patches or pulses.

Our results suggest that the 2 shrubs and 2 perennial grasses differed in the scale at which they foraged for nutrients. Some species exhibited a coarse-scale utilization of nutrients while others were clearly capable of fine-scale utilization of spatially distributed nutrient sources. This suggests the potential for at least some spatial niche separation among these species.