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Recuperation of nitrogen cycling in Amazonian forests following agricultural abandonment


Phosphorus (P) is generally considered the most common limiting nutrient for productivity of mature tropical lowland forests growing on highly weathered soils1,2,3,4,5. It is often assumed that P limitation also applies to young tropical forests, but nitrogen (N) losses during land-use change may alter the stoichiometric balance of nutrient cycling processes. In the Amazon basin, about 16% of the original forest area has been cleared6, and about 30–50% of cleared land is estimated now to be in some stage of secondary forest succession following agricultural abandonment7. Here we use forest age chronosequences to demonstrate that young successional forests growing after agricultural abandonment on highly weathered lowland tropical soils exhibit conservative N-cycling properties much like those of N-limited forests on younger soils in temperate latitudes. As secondary succession progresses, N-cycling properties recover and the dominance of a conservative P cycle typical of mature lowland tropical forests re-emerges. These successional shifts in N:P cycling ratios with forest age provide a mechanistic explanation for initially lower and then gradually increasing soil emissions of the greenhouse gas nitrous oxide (N2O). The patterns of N and P cycling during secondary forest succession, demonstrated here over decadal timescales, are similar to N- and P-cycling patterns during primary succession as soils age over thousands and millions of years, thus revealing that N availability in terrestrial ecosystems is ephemeral and can be disrupted by either natural or anthropogenic disturbances at several timescales.

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Figure 1: Indicators of N and P cycling along secondary successional forest chronosequences.


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We thank K. de F. R. Pantoja for litterfall collections, A. Almeida for assistance with establishing the chronosequences, R. Figueiredo for assistance with project and data management, and the Large-Scale Biosphere–Atmosphere (LBA) training and education programme for student stipends. This work was supported by grants from the LBA-Ecology programme of NASA.

Author Contributions E.A.D. established project design, led the fund-raising effort, supervised the field work of F.Y.I. and R.T.S., and wrote the paper. C.J.R.d.C. conducted laboratory analyses of soils and litter. A.M.F. collected foliar samples at São Francisco and conducted isotopic analyses, under the supervision of J.P.H.B.O. and G.B.N. F.Y.I. led and R.T.S. assisted with field measurements of trace gas fluxes. S.N.H. conducted litterfall studies and E.C.L. collected soils and fresh foliage at Capitão Poço, both under the supervision of I.C.G.V. A.M.F., F.Y.I., J.P.H.B.O., G.B.N., and L.A.M. contributed to an early draft of the manuscript in Portuguese, and L.A.M. supervised the work of A.M.F. I.C.G.V. established the chronosequence study.

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Correspondence to Eric A. Davidson.

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Reprints and permissions information is available at The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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This file contains Supplementary Figure S1 with Legend and Supplementary Tables S1 –S3. (PDF 253 kb)

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Davidson, E., de Carvalho, C., Figueira, A. et al. Recuperation of nitrogen cycling in Amazonian forests following agricultural abandonment. Nature 447, 995–998 (2007).

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