Plant and Soil

, Volume 286, Issue 1–2, pp 287–299 | Cite as

The Vertical Pattern of Rooting and Nutrient Uptake at Different Altitudes of a South Ecuadorian Montane Forest

  • N. Soethe
  • J. Lehmann
  • C. Engels
Original Paper


The vertical pattern of root length densities (RLD) of fine roots (<2 mm in diameter) and nitrogen (N) uptake potential were determined at different altitudes (1,900, 2,400, and 3,000 m a.s.l.) of a tropical montane forest in order to improve our knowledge about the depth distribution of nutrient uptake in this ecosystem. At higher altitudes, precipitation rate and frequency of fog were higher than at lower altitudes while mean annual air temperature decreased with increasing altitude. Soils were always very acid with significantly lower pH at a depth of 0.0–0.3 m in mineral soil at 3,000 m (2.8–2.9) than at 1,900 and 2,400 m (3.1–3.5). The vertical distribution of RLD was very similar both during the dry and the rainy season. During the dry season the percentage of root length in the organic layer increased from 51% at 1,900 m to 61% at 2,400 m and 76% at 3,000 m. At 3,000 m, RLD was markedly higher in the upper 0.05 m than in the remaining organic layer, whereas at 1,900 m and 2,400 m RLD were similar in all depths of the organic layer. In mineral soil, RLD decreased to a greater degree with increasing soil depth at the upper two study sites than at 1,900 m.

The relative N uptake potential from different soil layers (RNUP) was determined by 15N enrichment of leaves after application of 15N enriched ammonium sulphate at various soil depths. RNUP closely followed fine root distribution confirming the shallower pattern of nutrient uptake at higher altitudes. RNUP was very similar for trees, shrubs and herbs, but shallower for saplings which obtained N only from the organic layer at both altitudes. Liming and fertilizing (N, P, K, Mg) of small patches in mineral soil had no significant impact on fine root growth. We conclude that the more superficial nutrient uptake ability at higher altitudes may be partly related to increased nutrient input from canopy by leaching. However, the specific constraints for root growth in the mineral soil of tropical montane forests warrant further investigations.


Ingrowth cores 15Nutrient retention Nutrient uptake ability Root length densities Season 



root length density


relative nutrient uptake potential


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We are grateful to Ruth Poma, Letti Jimbo, Virgilio Aguirre, Jefferson and Angel Feijoo, and Abrahan Pacheco for infinite hours of fieldwork. We thank INEFAN for granting the research permit and the Fundacion Científica San Francisco for logistic support at the ECSF. 15N-analyses were performed by the Zentrale Analytik of the Bayreuther Institut für Ökosystemforschung (BITÖK) with financial support of the Bundesministerium für Bildung und Forschung (BMBF) (0339475 D). We are grateful to the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG) for providing financial support of the research project (En342/5).


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2006

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Plant Nutrition and FertilizationHumboldt University of BerlinBerlinGermany
  2. 2.Department of Crop and Soil SciencesCornell UniversityIthacaUSA

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