Farmers today apply more synthetic fertilizers to farm fields than ever before – but not all of these nutrients are used by crops: some fertilizer escapes through the air, soil, or water. Nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium flow off farm fields when it rains, billow into the air when fields are plowed and drift with the wind to other areas. Extra nutrients are also released to the air when people burn fossil fuels. We wanted to find out: what happens when these extra nutrients land on wild prairie ecosystems? How do its wild plants respond? Do they all just grow better? Or could there be any negative side effects?
To answer these questions, we systematically added nutrients to experimental patches of prairie. We found that these added nutrients (specifically nitrogen) made early-season plants thrive while reducing the amount of late-season plants, but only in some prairie types. This change could have serious implications for the way prairie ecosystems function.