Topography should create spatial variation in water and nutrients and play an especially important role in the ecology of water-limited systems. We use stable isotopes to discern how plants respond both to ecological gradients associated with elevation and to neighboring legumes on a south-facing slope in the semi-arid, historically grazed steppe of northern Mongolia. Out of three target species, Potentilla acaulis, Potentilla sericea, and Festuca lenensis, when > 30 cm from a legume, all showed a decrease in leaf delta N-15 with increasing elevation. This, together with measures of soil delta N-15, suggests greater N processing at the moister, more productive, lower elevation, and more N fixation at the upper elevation, where cover of legumes and lichens and plant-available nitrate were greater. Total soil N was greater at the lower elevation, but not lichen biomass or root colonization by AMF. Leaf delta C-13 values for P. acaulis and F. lenensis are consistent with increasing water stress with elevation; delta C-13 values indicated the greatest intrinsic water use efficiency for P. sericea, which is more abundant at the upper elevation. Nearby legumes (< 10 cm) moderate the effect of elevation on leaf delta N-15, confirming legumes' meaningful input of N, and affect leaf delta C-13 for two species, suggesting an influence on the efficiency of carbon fixation. Variation in leaf %N and %C as a function of elevation and proximity to a legume differs among species. Apparently, most N input is at upper elevations, pointing to the possible importance of grazers, in addition to hydrological processes, as transporters of N throughout this landscape.
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