Letter

Nature 437, 547-550 (22 September 2005) | doi:10.1038/nature03950; Received 20 May 2005; Accepted 23 June 2005

Endangered plants persist under phosphorus limitation

Martin J. Wassen1,6, Harry Olde Venterink2,6, Elena D. Lapshina3,5 & Franziska Tanneberger4

  1. Environmental Sciences, Copernicus Institute for Sustainable Development and Innovation, Utrecht University, PO Box 80115, 3508 TC Utrecht, The Netherlands
  2. Geobotanical Institute ETH, Zürichbergstrasse 38, 8044 Zürich, Switzerland
  3. Department of Botany, State University of Tomsk, 36 Lenin Avenue, 634050, Tomsk, Russia
  4. Institute of Botany and Landscape Ecology, Ernst-Moritz-Arndt University, Grimmer Strasse 88, 17487 Greifswald, Germany
  5. †Present address: Yugra State University, Department of Environmental Dynamics and Global Climate Change, ul. Chekhova 16, 628012, Khanty-Mansiysk, Russia
  6. *These authors contributed equally to this work

Correspondence to: Martin J. Wassen1,6 Correspondence and requests for materials should be addressed to M.W. (Email: m.wassen@geo.uu.nl).

Nitrogen enrichment is widely thought to be responsible for the loss of plant species from temperate terrestrial ecosystems. This view is based on field surveys and controlled experiments showing that species richness correlates negatively with high productivity1, 2 and nitrogen enrichment3. However, as the type of nutrient limitation has never been examined on a large geographical scale the causality of these relationships is uncertain. We investigated species richness in herbaceous terrestrial ecosystems, sampled along a transect through temperate Eurasia that represented a gradient of declining levels of atmospheric nitrogen deposition—from approx 50 kg ha-1 yr-1 in western Europe to natural background values of less than 5 kg ha-1 yr-1 in Siberia4. Here we show that many more endangered plant species persist under phosphorus-limited than under nitrogen-limited conditions, and we conclude that enhanced phosphorus is more likely to be the cause of species loss than nitrogen enrichment. Our results highlight the need for a better understanding of the mechanisms of phosphorus enrichment, and for a stronger focus on conservation management to reduce phosphorus availability.

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