Previous studies of Eurasian grasslands have suggested that nutrient ratios, rather than absolute nutrient availabilities and associated productivity, may be driving plant species richness patterns. However, the underlying assumption that species occupy distinct niches along nutrient ratio gradients remains to be tested. We analysed plant community composition and nutrient status of 644 Eurasian wet grassland plots. The importance of nutrient ratios driving variation in species composition was analysed using ordination methods (DCA and CCA). Subsequently, we assessed the niche position and width along the most important nutrient ratio gradient [N:P] for each species. We found that the N:P ratio explained part of the variation in species composition independent from conventional explanatory variables. The N:P ratio explained less variation than soil moisture or pH, but more than productivity or the availability of N and P separately, highlighting its importance for grassland species composition. Species occupied distinct niches along the N:P gradient, and species’ niche widths decreased toward extreme nutrient limitation. After correcting for niche position, there was no overall difference in niche width between endangered and non-endangered species. Surprisingly, endangered species with niche optima at the extreme P-limited end of the gradient had broader niches than their non-endangered counterparts. As species occupied distinct niches along a nutrient ratio gradient, future grassland conservation efforts may benefit from targeting changes in nutrient ratios, i.e. the balance between N and P, rather than only focussing on a general reduction in nutrient availability. However, what management interventions can be used for this purpose remains unclear.
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