The central grassland region of North America is characterized by large gradients of temperature and precipitation. These climatic variables are important determinants of the distribution of plant species, and strongly influence plant morphology and tissue chemistry. We analysed regional patterns of plant litter quality as they vary with climate in grassland ecosystems throughout central North America including tall-grass prairie, mixed grass prairie, shortgrass steppe, and hot desert grasslands. An extensive database from the International Biological Program and the Long-Term Ecological Research Program allowed us to isolate the effects of climate from those of plant functional types on litter quality. Our analysis of grass species confirms a previously recognized positive correlation between C/N ratios and precipitation. Precipitation exhibited a similar positive relationship with lignin/N and percent lignin. Although there was no significant correlation between temperature and C/N, there was a significant positive relationship between temperature and both percent lignin and lignin/N. Among functional types, C3 grasses had a slightly lower C/N ratio than C4 grasses. Tall grass species exhibited higher C/N, lignin/N, and percent lignin than short grass species. This understanding of the regional patterns of litter quality and the factors controlling them provides us with a greater knowledge of the effect that global change and the accompanying feedbacks may have on ecosystem processes.
Abbreviations: LTER = Long-Term Ecological Research; NUE = Nutrient use efficiency.