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Legume abundance along successional and rainfall gradients in Neotropical forests

Nature Ecology & Evolutionvolume 2pages11041111 (2018) | Download Citation


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


  1. Department of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior, University of Minnesota, St. Paul, MN, USA

    • Maga Gei
    •  & Jennifer S. Powers
  2. Department of Biology, University of Regina, Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada

    • Danaë M. A. Rozendaal
  3. Forest Ecology and Forest Management Group, Wageningen University and Research, Wageningen, The Netherlands

    • Danaë M. A. Rozendaal
    • , Lourens Poorter
    • , Frans Bongers
    • , Madelon Lohbeck
    •  & Marielos Peña-Claros
  4. Laboratory of Geo-Information Science and Remote Sensing, Wageningen University and Research, Wageningen, The Netherlands

    • Danaë M. A. Rozendaal
  5. Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh, Edinburgh, UK

    • Janet I. Sprent
  6. College of Biological Sciences, University of Minnesota, St. Paul, MN, USA

    • Mira D. Garner
  7. Department of Biology, University of Puerto Rico-Rio Piedras, San Juan, Puerto Rico

    • T. Mitchell Aide
  8. Centro de Investigación Científica de Yucatán, Unidad de Recursos Naturales, Mérida, Yucatán, Mexico

    • José Luis Andrade
    • , Juan Manuel Dupuy
    • , José Luis Hernández-Stefanoni
    • , Casandra Reyes-García
    •  & Lucía Sanaphre-Villanueva
  9. Instituto de Investigaciones en Ecosistemas y Sustentabilidad, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Morelia, Mexico

    • Patricia Balvanera
    • , Miguel Martínez-Ramos
    • , Francisco Mora
    • , Jorge Rodríguez-Velázquez
    •  & Lucía Sanaphre-Villanueva
  10. Environmental Studies Program, Colby College, Waterville, ME, USA

    • Justin M. Becknell
  11. Department of Forest Sciences, Luiz de Queiroz College of Agriculture, University of São Paulo, Piracicaba, Brazil

    • Pedro H. S. Brancalion
    • , Ricardo Gomes César
    •  & Vanessa de Souza Moreno
  12. Departamento de Genética, Universidade Federal de Pernambuco, Recife, Brazil

    • George A. L. Cabral
  13. Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Connecticut, Storrs, CT, USA

    • Robin L. Chazdon
  14. International Institute for Sustainability, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

    • Robin L. Chazdon
    •  & André B. Junqueira
  15. Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Colorado, Boulder, CO, USA

    • Robin L. Chazdon
  16. Tropical Forests and People Research Centre, University of the Sunshine Coast, Sippy Downs, Queensland, Australia

    • Robin L. Chazdon
  17. Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Management, University of Hawaii at Manoa, Honolulu, HI, USA

    • Rebecca J. Cole
  18. Programa de Pós-graduação em Biologia Vegetal, Instituto de Biologia, Universidade Estadual de Campinas, Campinas, Brazil

    • Gabriel Dalla Colletta
  19. Department of Sustainability Science, El Colegio de la Frontera Sur, Campeche, Mexico

    • Ben de Jong
    •  & Susana Ochoa-Gaona
  20. Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Tulane University, New Orleans, LA, USA

    • Julie S. Denslow
  21. Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, Panamá, Republic of Panama

    • Daisy H. Dent
    •  & Jennifer S. Powers
  22. Biological and Environmental Sciences, University of Stirling, Stirling, UK

    • Daisy H. Dent
  23. Department of Biological Sciences, Clemson University, Clemson, SC, USA

    • Saara J. DeWalt
  24. Earth and Atmospheric Sciences Department, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada

    • Sandra M. Durán
    •  & Arturo Sanchez-Azofeifa
  25. Departamento de Biologia Geral, Universidade Estadual de Montes Claros, Montes Claros, Brazil

    • Mário Marcos do Espírito Santo
    • , Yule Roberta Ferreira Nunes
    •  & Maria das Dores Magalhães Veloso
  26. Ecologia Evolutiva and Biodiversidade/DBG, ICB/Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais, Belo Horizonte, Brazil

    • G. Wilson Fernandes
  27. Forests, Biodiversity and Climate Change Programme, Tropical Agricultural Centre for Research and Higher Education (CATIE), Turrialba, Costa Rica

    • Bryan Finegan
  28. Graduate School, Tropical Agricultural Centre for Research and Higher Education (CATIE), Turrialba, Costa Rica

    • Vanessa Granda Moser
  29. ForestGEO, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, Panamá, Republic of Panama

    • Jefferson S. Hall
    •  & Michiel van Breugel
  30. Department of Soil Quality, Wageningen University, Wageningen, The Netherlands

    • André B. Junqueira
  31. Centre for Conservation and Sustainability Science (CSRio), Department of Geography and the Environment, Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

    • André B. Junqueira
  32. Department of Physical and Environmental Sciences, Colorado Mesa University, Grand Junction, CO, USA

    • Deborah Kennard
  33. Department of Biology and Environment, Faculty of Natural Sciences, University of Haifa-Oranim, Tivon, Israel

    • Edwin Lebrija-Trejos
  34. Department of Plant Biology, College of the Atlantic, Bar Harbor, ME, USA

    • Susan G. Letcher
  35. World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF), Nairobi, Kenya

    • Madelon Lohbeck
  36. Department of Geography, University of Wisconsin–Madison, Madison, WI, USA

    • Erika Marín-Spiotta
  37. Departamento de Ecología y Recursos Naturales, Facultad de Ciencias, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Ciudad de México, Mexico

    • Jorge A. Meave
    • , Rodrigo Muñoz
    • , Eduardo A. Pérez-García
    •  & I. Eunice Romero-Pérez
  38. Department of Ecology, Evolution and Environmental Biology, Columbia University, New York, NY, USA

    • Duncan N. L. Menge
    • , Naomi B. Schwartz
    •  & Maria Uriarte
  39. Section for Ecoinformatics and Biodiversity, Department of Bioscience, Aarhus University, Aarhus, Denmark

    • Robert Muscarella
  40. National Institute of Ecology and Climate Change, Delegación Coyoacán, Mexico

    • Edith Orihuela-Belmonte
  41. Department of Biology, University of Hawaii at Hilo, Hilo, HI, USA

    • Rebecca Ostertag
  42. Centro de Formação em Ciências Agroflorestais, Universidade Federal do Sul da Bahia, Itabuna, Brazil

    • Daniel Piotto
  43. Department of Forest Resources, University of Minnesota, St. Paul, MN, USA

    • Peter B. Reich
  44. Hawkesbury Institute for the Environment, Western Sydney University, Penrith, New South Wales, Australia

    • Peter B. Reich
  45. Museu Paraense Emilio Goeldi, Belém, Brazil

    • Arlete Silva de Almeida
    •  & Ima Célia Guimarães Vieira
  46. Departamento de Botânica, Universidade Federal de Pernambuco, Recife, Brazil

    • Jarcilene S. Almeida-Cortez
  47. Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management, University of California, Berkeley, CA, USA

    • Whendee Silver
  48. Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Science, University of Nevada, Reno, NV, USA

    • Benjamin W. Sullivan
  49. Department of Biology, University of Maryland, College Park, MD, USA

    • Nathan G. Swenson
  50. Yale-NUS College, Singapore and Department of Biological Sciences, National University of Singapore, Singapore, Singapore

    • Michiel van Breugel
  51. Grupo Académico de Agroecología, Departamento de Agricultura, Sociedad y Ambiente, El Colegio de la Frontera Sur, Tabasco, Mexico

    • Hans van der Wal
  52. Institute for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Dynamics (IBED), University of Amsterdam, Amsterdam, The Netherlands

    • Hans F. M. Vester
  53. Department of Environmental Sciences, University of Puerto Rico-Rio Piedras, San Juan, Puerto Rico

    • Jess K. Zimmerman
  54. Department of Plant Biology and Microbial Biology, University of Minnesota, St. Paul, MN, USA

    • Jennifer S. Powers


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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.

Corresponding author

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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