Letter | Published:

Pervasive phosphorus limitation of tree species but not communities in tropical forests

Nature volume 555, pages 367370 (15 March 2018) | Download Citation

This article has been updated

Abstract

Phosphorus availability is widely assumed to limit primary productivity in tropical forests1,2, but support for this paradigm is equivocal3. Although biogeochemical theory predicts that phosphorus limitation should be prevalent on old, strongly weathered soils4,5, experimental manipulations have failed to detect a consistent response to phosphorus addition in species-rich lowland tropical forests6,7,8,9. Here we show, by quantifying the growth of 541 tropical tree species across a steep natural phosphorus gradient in Panama, that phosphorus limitation is widespread at the level of individual species and strengthens markedly below a threshold of two parts per million exchangeable soil phosphate. However, this pervasive species-specific phosphorus limitation does not translate into a community-wide response, because some species grow rapidly on infertile soils despite extremely low phosphorus availability. These results redefine our understanding of nutrient limitation in diverse plant communities and have important implications for attempts to predict the response of tropical forests to environmental change.

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Change history

  • 02 May 2018

    Please see accompanying Publisher correction (https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-018-0099-x). In this Letter, the y axis of the right-hand panel of Fig. 2a was mislabelled 'Phosphomonoesterase' instead of 'Phosphodiesterase'. This error has been corrected online.

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Acknowledgements

We thank R. Pérez, S. Aguilar and the many field assistants who helped in collection of the plot data; staff at the STRI Soils Laboratory for assistance in the collection and analysis of soils; and J. Dalling, E. Laliberté, M. Sheldrake and G. Zemunik for comments on the manuscript.

Author information

Affiliations

  1. Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, Apartado 0843-03092, Balboa, Ancon, Panama

    • Benjamin L. Turner
    • , Tania Brenes-Arguedas
    •  & Richard Condit

Authors

  1. Search for Benjamin L. Turner in:

  2. Search for Tania Brenes-Arguedas in:

  3. Search for Richard Condit in:

Contributions

R.C. collected tree growth data, B.L.T. collected soil data, T.B.-A. and R.C. conducted statistical analysis, and B.L.T. wrote the manuscript with input from T.B.-A. and R.C.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Benjamin L. Turner.

Publisher's note: Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Extended data

Supplementary information

PDF files

  1. 1.

    Life Sciences Reporting Summary

Excel files

  1. 1.

    Supplementary Table 1

    This file contains information on 32 forest census plots used in the hierarchical model.

  2. 2.

    Supplementary Table 2

    This file contains correlations among soil properties, including dry season moisture deficit, extractable nutrients, organic matter, and texture, in 32 plots in tropical forest in Panama. Significant correlations are in bold text (p < 0.05). Results for the broader set of sites involved in the determination of species distributional associations were reported previously14.

  3. 3.

    Supplementary Table 3

    This file contains information on 83 study sites in the phosphatase analysis. Seventy-two of the sites were used to generate phosphorus and moisture affinities of tree species in Condit et al.14.

  4. 4.

    Supplementary Table 4

    This file contains species information and affinities to moisture and phosphorus from Condit et al.14.

  5. 5.

    Supplementary Table 5

    This file contains species-specific growth rates and responses to phosphorus and moisture in the hierarchical model, obtained from random effects.

  6. 6.

    Supplementary Table 6

    This file contains growth responses to phosphorus for small and large trees of 175 common species, defined as those with > 20 individuals with growth data across the plot network.

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DOI

https://doi.org/10.1038/nature25789

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