Electrolytes on the prairie: How urine‐like additions of Na and K shape the dynamics of a grassland food web

TitleElectrolytes on the prairie: How urine‐like additions of Na and K shape the dynamics of a grassland food web
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of PublicationIn Press
AuthorsKaspari, M, Welti, EAR

The electrolytes Na and K both function to maintain water balance and membrane potential. However, these elements work differently in plants—where K is the primary electrolyte—than in animals—where ATPases require a balanced supply of Na and K. Here we use monthly factorial additions of Na and K to simulate bovine urine inputs and explore how these electrolytes ramify through a prairie food web. Against a seasonal trend of increasing grass biomass and decreasing water and elemental tissue concentrations, +K and +Na plots boosted water content and, when added together, plant biomass. Compared to control plots, +Na and +K plots increased element concentrations in aboveground plant tissue early in summer and decreased them in September. Simultaneously, invertebrate abundance on Na and K additions were sequentially higher and lower than control plots from June-September and were most suppressed when grass was most nutrient rich. K was the more effective plant electrolyte, but Na frequently promoted similar changes in grass ionomes. The soluble/leachable ions of Na and K showed significant ability to shape plant growth, water content, and the 15-element ionome, with consequences for higher trophic levels. Grasslands with high inputs of Na and K—via large mammal grazers or coastal aerosol deposition—likely enhance the ability of plants to adjust their aboveground ionomes, with dramatic consequences for the distribution of invertebrate consumers.