The composition and abundance of legumes affect the economic value and ecological sustainability of natural grasslands. We collected data on species richness and aboveground biomass of legumes and their percentages of the total community at 78 field sites in Chinese natural grasslands on the Tibetan Plateau (alpine steppe and alpine meadow) and in Inner Mongolia (meadow steppe, typical steppe, and desert steppe), and analyzed the association between these attributes with community, climate, and soil factors. At least one legume species occurred in 89.7% of the sites studied; the genera Astragalus, Oxytropis, and Medicago were dominant among the 12 legume genera recorded. Generally, within 1 m2 of grassland, only one legume species was present with an aboveground biomass of 1.1 g; this accounted for 9.1% of community species richness and 1.7% of total aboveground biomass. In comparison with many other types of grassland around the world, both the legume aboveground biomass and its percentage of the total were low in Chinese grasslands, especially in Inner Mongolia. The low biomass of legumes in grassland might be attributable to the low growing-season temperature on the Tibetan Plateau, while in Inner Mongolia, low precipitation combined with high temperatures during the growing season may be the main reason. Although legumes in Chinese grasslands have substantial potential for nitrogen fixation and contain a variety of forage species, their ecological and economic value has been limited by their low biomass. Suggestions to enhance legume biomass in Chinese grasslands are provided.
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