Endangered plants persist under phosphorus limitation


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  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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Figure 1: Species richness affected by nutrient limitation in herbaceous ecosystems in Eurasia.
Figure 2: Frequency distributions of endangered species and sites with low productivity.


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We would like to thank A. Barendregt, D. Belgers, W. Bleuten, W. Hahne, A. de Hamer, H. de Mars, N. Pieterse, S. Schep, J. de Smidt, R. Zeefat and J. van Zuidam for their assistance during the fieldwork, P. de Ruiter, M. Rietkerk, S. Güsewell, H. Joosten, P. Edwards and N. Versfeld for their comments on the manuscript, V. Rodenburg for reading the manuscript, W. Busschers for statistical advice and T. Markus for drawing the figures.Author Contributions M.J.W. project planning; M.J.W. and H.O.V. data analysis and writing; M.J.W., H.O.V., E.D.L. and F.T. field work.

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Correspondence to Martin J. Wassen.

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Supplementary information

Supplementary Figure Legends

Legends to accompany Supplmentary Figures S1 and S2. (DOC 20 kb)

Supplementary Figure S1

Graphs of species richness and endangered species against biomass and N:P ratio, sorted by type of nutrient limitation (N, N&P, P) and by region (Siberia; Poland; The Netherlands &Belgium). (PDF 38 kb)

Supplementary Figure S2

Graphs of species richness and endangered species against acidity of soil moisture and maximum inundation depth. (PDF 75 kb)

Supplementary Table S1

The occurrence of endangered species at N-, N&P-, P-, and K-limited sites. (DOC 26 kb)

Supplementary Table S2

The results of a test for differences in N:P ratios among sites dominated by grasses and herbs, respectively. (DOC 20 kb)

Supplementary Discussion

In Supplementary Discussion the method of nutrient ratios for determining nutrient limitation is discussed. (DOC 21 kb)

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