, Volume 46, Issue 1, pp 233-246

The presence of nitrogen fixing legumes in terrestrial communities: Evolutionary vs ecological considerations

  • Timothy E. CrewsAffiliated withEnvironmental Studies Program, Prescott College

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Nitrogen is often a limiting factor to net primary productivity (NPP) and other processes in terrestrial ecosystems. In most temperate freshwater ecosystems, when nitrogen becomes limiting to NPP, populations of N-fixing cyanobacteria experience a competitive advantage, and begin to grow and fix nitrogen until the next most limiting resource is encountered; typically phosphorus or light. Why is it that N-fixing plants do not generally function to overcome N limitation in terrestrial ecosystems in the same way that cyanobacteria function in aquatic ecosystems? To address this question in a particular ecosystem, one must first know whether the flora includes a potential set of nitrogen fixers. I suggest that the presence or absence of N-fixing plant symbioses is foremost an evolutionary consideration, determined to a large extent by constraints on the geographical radiation of woody members of the family Fabaceae. Ecological factors such as competition, nutrient deficiencies, grazing and fire are useful to explain the success of N-fixing plants only when considered against the geographical distribution of potential N-fixers.

Key words

biogeography Fabaceae legumes nitrogen fixation nutrient limitation