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Legume abundance along successional and rainfall gradients in Neotropical forests


The nutrient demands of regrowing tropical forests are partly satisfied by nitrogen-fixing legume trees, but our understanding of the abundance of those species is biased towards wet tropical regions. Here we show how the abundance of Leguminosae is affected by both recovery from disturbance and large-scale rainfall gradients through a synthesis of forest inventory plots from a network of 42 Neotropical forest chronosequences. During the first three decades of natural forest regeneration, legume basal area is twice as high in dry compared with wet secondary forests. The tremendous ecological success of legumes in recently disturbed, water-limited forests is likely to be related to both their reduced leaflet size and ability to fix N2, which together enhance legume drought tolerance and water-use efficiency. Earth system models should incorporate these large-scale successional and climatic patterns of legume dominance to provide more accurate estimates of the maximum potential for natural nitrogen fixation across tropical forests.

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This paper is a product of the 2ndFOR collaborative research network on secondary forests. We thank the owners of the sites for access to their forests, the people who have established and measured the plots, and the institutions and funding agencies that supported them. This study was partly funded by a University of Minnesota Grant-in-Aid to J.S.P. that supported M.G. We thank the University of Minnesota Herbarium and A. Cholewa for access to herbarium collections, and S. St. George, C. Cleveland and P. Tiffin for comments. Additional funding was provided by Secretaría de Educación Pública-Consejo Nacional de Ciencia y Tecnología, Ciencia Básica (SEP-CONACYT: CB-2009-128136, CB-2015-255544), Programa de Apoyo a Proyectos de Investigación e Innovación Tecnológica, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (PAPIIT-UNAM: 218416, 211114, IN212617), United States Agency for International Development BOLFOR Project, Andrew Mellon Foundation, United States National Science Foundation (Division of Environmental Biology: DEB-0129104, DEB-1050957, DEB-1053237, DEB-9208031, DEB-0424767, DEB-0639393, DEB-1147429, DEB-0129104, 10-02586, DEB-1313788), National Science Foundation CAREER Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences 1349952, National Science Foundation Geosciences GEO-1128040, United States Department of Energy (Office of Science, Office of Biological and Environmental Research, Terrestrial Ecosystem Science Program award number DE-SC0014363), United States National Aeronautics and Space Agency Terrestrial Ecology Program, the University of Connecticut Research Foundation, Tropi-Dry - a collaborative Research Network funded by the Inter-American Institute for Global Change Research (IAI CRN3-025, IAI CRN3035) under the US National Sciences Foundation, the National Science and Research Council of Canada (NSERC) Discovery Grant Program, Fundação de Amparo à Pesquisa de Minas Gerais (FAPEMIG), Instituto Internacional de Educação do Brasil, Netherlands Organization for Cooperation in Higher Education, Interdisciplinary Research and Education Fund (Wageningen University) Terra Preta and FOREFRONT Programmes, Secretaria Nacional de Ciencia, Tecnologia e Innovacion, Panama (SENACYT: International Collaboration grant, COL10-052), Fondo Mixto Consejo Nacional de Ciencia y Tecnología - Gobierno del Estado de Yucatán (Yuc-2008-C06-108863), El Consejo de Ciencia y Technologia Grant 33851-B, São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP; grants #2013/50718-5, #2011/14517-0, #2014/14503-7, 2011/06782-5 and 2014/14503-7), Coordination for the Improvement of Higher Education Personnel of Brazil (CAPES; grant #88881.064976/2014-01), the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development of Brazil (CNPq; grant #304817/2015-5, 306375/2016-8, 563304/2010-3, 308471/2017-2), El Consejo de Ciencia y Technologia Grant 33851-B, Stichting Het Kronendak, Stichting Tropenbos, Center for International Forestry Research, Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (Norad), International Climate Initiative (IKI) of the German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, and Building and Nuclear Safety (BMUB), Yale-NUS College grant R-607-265-054-121, Heising-Simons Foundation, Hoch Family, Silicon Valley Foundation, Stanley Motta, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and the Grantham Foundation for the Environment.

Author information

M.G. and J.S.P. conceived the idea, all co-authors coordinated the data compilations, M.G. and M.D.G. collected leaf traits data, M.G. analysed the data, D.M.A.R. contributed to the analytical approach, M.G. and J.S.P. wrote the paper, and all co-authors collected field data, discussed the results, gave suggestions for further analyses and commented on the manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Correspondence to Jennifer S. Powers.

Supplementary information

  1. Supplementary Information

    Supplementary Figures 1–7, Supplementary Tables 2, 4, 5 and 6, Supplementary References

  2. Reporting Summary

  3. Supplementary Table 1

    Metadata associated with 2ndFOR sites in the neotropics

  4. Supplementary Table 3

    List of 398 Leguminosae species present in 42 neotropical chronosequences, their current (and previous) subfamily classification, their potential to form symbioses with N-fixing bacteria, leaf type, and average (and standard deviation) leaflet length and width (cm)

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Fig. 1: Absolute and relative basal area of legume species in Neotropical secondary forests.
Fig. 2: Legume relative basal area across a rainfall gradient in the Neotropics.
Fig. 3: Relative basal area of legumes for 5- and 20-year-old forests as a function of mean annual rainfall.