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Biological Nitrogen Fixation Does Not Replace Nitrogen Losses After Forest Fires in the Southeastern Amazon

  • Michelle Y. WongEmail author
  • Christopher Neill
  • Roxanne Marino
  • Divino V. Silvério
  • Paulo M. Brando
  • Robert W. Howarth


Tropical forest fires have become more common due to interactions between deforestation, land clearing, and drought. Forest recovery following fires may be limited by nitrogen. Biological nitrogen fixation (BNF) is the main pathway for new nitrogen (N) to enter most ecosystems, but BNF may be constrained by other nutrients, such as molybdenum and phosphorus, which are required for the process. We studied the role of BNF 7 years into the recovery of southeastern Amazon tropical forests that were burned experimentally either annually or every 3 years between 2004 and 2010. We hypothesized that, compared with unburned primary forests, BNF in burned forests would increase due to the depletion of N in the aboveground biomass pool and that soil concentrations of molybdenum and phosphorus from ash inputs would increase, reducing their potential constraints on BNF. Despite the fires depleting about half the aboveground N pool and rapid rates of recovery in leaf biomass and litterfall production, we found low rates of both free-living and symbiotic BNF. Higher concentrations of molybdenum and phosphorus in the mineral soils of the burned forests indicated that these elements were likely not limiting BNF. Our results suggest that despite the N demand for regrowth post-fire, substantial N stored in soils likely downregulates BNF. Overall, we found surprisingly low BNF rates (< 1.2 kg N ha−1 y−1) in this region of the Amazon, which contrasts with the traditional paradigm that (1) tropical forests fix large quantities of N and (2) that BNF increases after forest disturbance.


symbiotic nitrogen fixation free-living nitrogen fixation forest fires molybdenum (Mo) phosphorus (P) tropical forests secondary forests 



We thank Louis Derry and Greg McLwee (Cornell University, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences); Richard McHorney (Marine Biological Laboratory), Melanie Hayn (Cornell University, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology), Stephen Parry (Cornell Statistical Consulting Unit), Hillary Sullivan, Paul Lefebvre, and Lindsay Scott (Woods Hole Research Center), and Kim Sparks (COIL) for laboratory and field development and assistance; Joy Winbourne and Ben Sullivan for sampling method development; Tim Fahey, Fiona Soper, and two anonymous reviewers for comments on the manuscript; and Luiz Martinelli for the foliar analysis. We thank the Instituto de Pesquisa Ambiental da Amazônia (IPAM) for institutional support, in particular the IPAM field staff for sampling and monitoring of plots: Darlisson Nunes, Maria Lucia Nascimento, Raimundo Mota Quintino, Leonardo Maracahipes dos Santos, and Sebastião Aviz do Nascimento. Special thanks to Grupo Amaggi for allowing the research to take place on their farm and providing infrastructure support. Funding was provided by Mario Einaudi and Cornell University travel grants, Sigma Xi (Cornell Chapter), Paul P. Feeny Fund, the Andrew W. Mellon Grant, and the Cornell University Program in Cross-Scale Biogeochemistry and Climate (NSF-IGERT, DGE-1069193) and the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future. This research was also supported by a CNPq grant awarded to P.M.B. (#305542/2010-9) and a postdoctoral scholarship to D.V.S. (#405800/2013-4). M.Y.W. was supported by an NSF IGERT Fellowship and an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship.

Supplementary material

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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Michelle Y. Wong
    • 1
    Email author
  • Christopher Neill
    • 2
  • Roxanne Marino
    • 1
  • Divino V. Silvério
    • 3
  • Paulo M. Brando
    • 2
    • 3
    • 4
  • Robert W. Howarth
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Ecology and Evolutionary BiologyCornell UniversityIthacaUSA
  2. 2.Woods Hole Research CenterFalmouthUSA
  3. 3.Instituto de Pesquisa Ambiental da AmazôniaBrasíliaBrazil
  4. 4.Department of Earth System ScienceUniversity of CaliforniaIrvineUSA

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