Letter | Published:

No growth stimulation of tropical trees by 150 years of CO2 fertilization but water-use efficiency increased

Nature Geoscience volume 8, pages 2428 (2015) | Download Citation


The biomass of undisturbed tropical forests has likely increased in the past few decades1,2, probably as a result of accelerated tree growth. Higher CO2 levels are expected to raise plant photosynthetic rates3 and enhance water-use efficiency4, that is, the ratio of carbon assimilation through photosynthesis to water loss through transpiration. However, there is no evidence that these physiological responses do indeed stimulate tree growth in tropical forests. Here we present measurements of stable carbon isotopes and growth rings in the wood of 1,100 trees from Bolivia, Cameroon and Thailand. Measurements of carbon isotope fractions in the wood indicate that intrinsic water-use efficiency in both understorey and canopy trees increased by 30–35% over the past 150 years as atmospheric CO2 concentrations increased. However, we found no evidence for the suggested concurrent acceleration of individual tree growth when analysing the width of growth rings. We conclude that the widespread assumption of a CO2-induced stimulation of tropical tree growth may not be valid.

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We thank the following people for their valuable contribution to this study: A. Nijmeijer, Q. Hakkaart, R. Haasnoot, J. Buijks, A. R. Seas, K. Paredes, A. Mendez, I. Bender, R. Middendorp, T. Voswinkel, R. Peters, E. Louwers, K. Veldhuijzen, W. Berendsen, F. Kelly, W. M. Nanga, D. Zakamdi, M. G. Singha, T. de Vries, A. Uilhoorn, N. van Rabenswaaij, U. Sass-Klaassen, F. Sterck, P. Schippers, S. Kiratiprayoon, A. Murdjoko, the personnel of logging companies Transformation REEF Cameroon and La Chonta Ltd Bolivia, R. Quevedo of the Carrera Forestal UAGRM, M. Tchamba of the Forestry department, University of Dschang and S. Bunyavejchewin of the National Parks Wildlife and Plant Conservation Department, Thailand. We would further like to thank P. J. Baker, C. Körner, W. F. Laurance, M. Scheffer, D. Sheil and S. J. Wright for comments on the manuscript. P.v.d.S., P.G., M.V. and P.Z. were financially supported by the European Research Council (ERC grant no. 242955).

Author information


  1. Forest Ecology and Management Group, Wageningen University, Droevendaalsesteeg 3 6708 PB, Wageningen, The Netherlands

    • Peter van der Sleen
    • , Peter Groenendijk
    • , Mart Vlam
    • , Frans Bongers
    • , Gideon Terburg
    •  & Pieter A. Zuidema
  2. Instituto Boliviano de Investigación Forestal, Km 9 carretera al norte Casilla 6204, Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia

    • Peter van der Sleen
  3. Centre for Crop Systems Analysis, Wageningen University, Droevendaalsesteeg 1 6708 PB, Wageningen, The Netherlands

    • Niels P. R. Anten
  4. Ecology and Biodiversity, Institute of Environmental Biology, Utrecht University, Padualaan 8 3584 CH, Utrecht, The Netherlands

    • Niels P. R. Anten
    • , Gideon Terburg
    •  & Pieter A. Zuidema
  5. Department of Geography, University of Leicester, Leicester LE1 7RH, UK

    • Arnoud Boom
  6. Plant Ecophysiology, Institute of Environmental Biology, Utrecht University, Padualaan 8 3584 CH, Utrecht, The Netherlands

    • Thijs L. Pons


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P.A.Z. conceived the study in discussion with N.P.R.A. and T.L.P. The study was supervised by P.A.Z. and F.B. P.G., M.V. and P.v.d.S. sampled the trees in the field and measured growth rings. G.T., P.v.d.S. and A.B. performed the stable isotope analyses. P.v.d.S. and P.A.Z. performed the data analyses and wrote the manuscript. All authors contributed to the interpretation of the results and helped to improve the manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Peter van der Sleen or Pieter A. Zuidema.

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