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Key role of symbiotic dinitrogen fixation in tropical forest secondary succession


Forests contribute a significant portion of the land carbon sink, but their ability to sequester CO2 may be constrained by nitrogen1,2,3,4,5,6, a major plant-limiting nutrient. Many tropical forests possess tree species capable of fixing atmospheric dinitrogen (N2)7, but it is unclear whether this functional group can supply the nitrogen needed as forests recover from disturbance or previous land use1, or expand in response to rising CO2 (refs 6, 8). Here we identify a powerful feedback mechanism in which N2 fixation can overcome ecosystem-scale deficiencies in nitrogen that emerge during periods of rapid biomass accumulation in tropical forests. Over a 300-year chronosequence in Panama, N2-fixing tree species accumulated carbon up to nine times faster per individual than their non-fixing neighbours (greatest difference in youngest forests), and showed species-specific differences in the amount and timing of fixation. As a result of fast growth and high fixation, fixers provided a large fraction of the nitrogen needed to support net forest growth (50,000 kg carbon per hectare) in the first 12 years. A key element of ecosystem functional diversity was ensured by the presence of different N2-fixing tree species across the entire forest age sequence. These findings show that symbiotic N2 fixation can have a central role in nitrogen cycling during tropical forest stand development, with potentially important implications for the ability of tropical forests to sequester CO2.

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Figure 1: Biomass carbon accumulation and dinitrogen fixation in forests recovering from land use.
Figure 2: Individual species contributions to ecosystem fixation.


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We thank S. Adelberg and K. Zelazny for assisting with data collection, M. Baillon and A. Hernandez for botanical identifications, N. Wurzburger and A. Barron for species-specific N2 fixation rates, J. Sprent for advice about N2-fixing trees and P. Reich for comments. This work was supported by grants to L.O.H. from the National Science Foundation (NSF; DEB-0614116), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA; grant NA17RJ262 – 344), the Cooperative Institute for Climate Science of Princeton University and the Carbon Mitigation Initiative of Princeton University; and to S.A.B. from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI). It is a contribution to the Agua Salud Project (ASP), a collaboration among STRI, the Panama Canal Authority (ACP) and the National Environmental Authority of Panama (ANAM). ASP funding came from the HSBC climate partnership, STRI, the Frank Levinson Family Foundation, the Motta Family Foundation and an anonymous donor.

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Authors and Affiliations



S.A.B., L.O.H., J.S.H. and M.v.B. designed the project. S.A.B. conducted N2-fixation-related field work. J.R., M.v.B. and J.S.H. provided allometry data; D.J.C. provided plant nutrient data. S.A.B. and L.O.H. wrote the paper. All authors commented on the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Sarah A. Batterman.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Supplementary Information

This file contains Supplementary Notes 1-8, Supplementary Tables 1-7, Supplementary Figures 1-7 and Supplementary References. (PDF 1970 kb)

Supplementary Information

This file contains the Plant-soil N dynamics model, which should be run in code R1. (PDF 129 kb)

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Batterman, S., Hedin, L., van Breugel, M. et al. Key role of symbiotic dinitrogen fixation in tropical forest secondary succession. Nature 502, 224–227 (2013).

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