Site conditions are more important than abundance for explaining plant invasion impacts on soil nitrogen cycling.
Invasive plant species can alter critical ecosystem processes including nitrogen transformations, but it is often difficult to anticipate where in an invaded landscape, these effects will occur. Our predictive ability lags because we lack a framework for understanding the multiple pathways through which environmental conditions mediate invader impacts. Here, we present a framework using structural equation modeling to evaluate the impact of an invasive grass, Microstegium vimineum (M.v.), on nitrogen cycling based on a series of invaded sites that varied in invader biomass and non-M.v. understory biomass, tree basal area, light availability, and soil conditions. Unlike previous studies, we did not find an overall pattern of elevated nitrate concentrations or higher nitrification rates in M.v.-invaded areas. We found that reference plot conditions mediated differences in mineralization between paired invaded and reference plots at each site through indirect (via M.v. biomass), direct, and interactive pathways; however, the strongest pathways were independent of M.v. biomass. For example, sites with low reference soil nitrate and high non-M.v. understory biomass tended to have faster mineralization at 5-15 cm in invaded plots. These findings suggest that more attention to reference conditions is needed to understand the impact of invasive species on soil nitrogen cycling and other ecosystem processes and that the greatest impacts will not necessarily be where the invader is most abundant.