Phosphorus resource partitioning shapes phosphorus acquisition and plant species abundance in grasslands

  • Nature Plants 3, Article number: 16224 (2017)
  • doi:10.1038/nplants.2016.224
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Species diversity is commonly hypothesized to result from trade-offs for different limiting resources, providing separate niches for coexisting species1,​2,​3,​4. As soil nutrients occur in multiple chemical forms, plant differences in acquisition of the same element derived from different compounds may represent unique niche dimensions5,6. Because plant productivity of ecosystems is often limited by phosphorus7, and because plants have evolved diverse adaptations to acquire soil phosphorus6,8, a promising yet untested hypothesis is phosphorus resource partitioning6,9,10. Here, we provided two different chemical forms of phosphorus to sown grassland mesocosms to investigate phosphorus acquisition of eight plant species that are common in European grasslands, and to identify subsequent patterns of plant abundance. For the first time, we show that the relative abundance of grassland plant species can be influenced by soil phosphorus forms, as higher abundance was linked to higher acquisition of a specific form of phosphorus. These results were supported by a subsequent isotope dilution experiment using intact grassland sods that were treated with different inorganic or organic phosphorus forms. Here, 5 out of 14 species showed greater phosphorus acquisition in the inorganic phosphorus treatment, and 4 in the organic phosphorus treatments. Furthermore, for the species used in both experiments we found similar acquisition patterns. Our results support the hypothesis of phosphorus resource partitioning and may provide a new mechanistic framework to explain high plant diversity in phosphorus-poor ecosystems6,11,​12,​13. As world biodiversity hotspots are almost invariably related to phosphorus limitation8,11,12, our results may thus also be key to understanding biodiversity loss in an era of ever-increasing nutrient enrichment14.

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We thank A. Waterkeyn, A. Geerts and P. Deschepper for their help with developing the figures. Finally, we thank P. Verwilt and M. Van Geel for their technical and statistical assistance. T.C. and J.B. are supported as postdoctoral and doctoral researcher respectively by the Flemish Fund for Scientific Research (Fonds Wetenschappelijk Onderzoek, FWO-Vlaanderen).

Author information


  1. Plant Conservation and Population Biology, Department of Biology, University of Leuven, Kasteelpark Arenberg 31, B-3001 Leuven, Belgium

    • Tobias Ceulemans
    • , Gerrit Peeters
    • , Kasper Van Acker
    •  & Olivier Honnay
  2. Isotope Bioscience Laboratory – ISOFYS, Department of Applied Analytical and Physical Chemistry, Ghent University, Coupure Links 653, B-9000 Gent, Belgium

    • Samuel Bodé
    •  & Pascal Boeckx
  3. Soil and Water Management, Department of Earth and Environmental Science, University of Leuven, Kasteelpark Arenberg 20, B-3001 Leuven, Belgium

    • Jessica Bollyn
    • , Kristin Coorevits
    •  & Erik Smolders
  4. Department of Physiological Diversity, Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research–UFZ, Permoserstrasse 15, 04318 Leipzig, Germany

    • Stanley Harpole
  5. German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv) Halle-Jena-Leipzig, Deutscher Platz 5e, 04103 Leipzig, Germany

    • Stanley Harpole
  6. Institute of Biology, Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg, Am Kirchtor 1, 06108 Halle (Saale), Germany

    • Stanley Harpole


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O.H. directed the project and contributed to the data analyses. S.B., J.B., E.S. and P.B. designed and directed the second experiment. K.V.A. carried out both experiments. G.P. carried out the second experiment and performed laboratory analyses of the second experiment. J.B., K.C., S.B., P.B. and E.S. helped to carry out the second experiment and directed its laboratory and data analyses. S.H. gave revision input on the first experiment. T.C. conceived and designed the project, carried out all experiments, performed all data analyses and drafted the manuscript. All authors contributed to editing the drafted manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Tobias Ceulemans.

Supplementary information

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  1. 1.

    Supplementary Information

    Supplementary Figures 1 and 2, Supplementary Tables 1–4.