In temperate forests, symbiotic nitrogen (N) fixation is restricted to the early phases of succession despite the persistence of N limitation on production late in succession. This paradox has yet to be explained adequately. We hypothesized that the restriction of N fixation to early stages of succession results from the optimization of resource allocation in the vegetation. Because of this optimization, N fixation should be restricted to periods when fixation is less costly than N uptake. Our analysis differs from others in the way we calculate the cost of N uptake; we assess the cost of N uptake as the amount of carbon (C) that could be assimilated if the resources necessary to acquire one gram of N from the soil were allocated instead to photosynthesis. We then simulate N fixation as an asymptotic function of the difference in cost between N uptake and N fixation and proportional to the abundance of host tissues for the N-fixing symbionts. The factors that contribute to conditions that favor N fixation are (a) elevated-carbon dioxide (CO2) concentrations, (b) an open canopy, (c) low available N in the soil, and (d) a soil volume already well exploited by roots. Our results indicate that changes in the relative cost of uptake vs fixation can explain most of the pattern in fixation through both primary and secondary succession, but that competitive interactions with nonfixing species play a role in the final exclusion of fixation in later stages of succession.
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