Nutrient Availability in Tropical Rain Forests: The Paradigm of Phosphorus Limitation

  • James W. DallingEmail author
  • Katherine Heineman
  • Omar R. Lopez
  • S. Joseph Wright
  • Benjamin L. Turner
Part of the Tree Physiology book series (TREE, volume 6)


A long-standing paradigm in tropical ecology is that phosphorus (P) availability limits the productivity of most lowland forests, with the largest pool of plant-available P resident in biomass . Evidence that P limits components of productivity is particularly strong for sites in Panama and the Amazon basin. Analyses of forest communities in Panama also show that tree species distributions are strongly affected by P availability at the regional scale, but that their local distributions in a single site on Barro Colorado Island (BCI) are as frequently correlated with base cations as with P. Traits associated with species sensitivity to P availability require more detailed exploration, but appear to show little similarity with those associated with N limitation in temperate forests. Recent research indicates that a large fraction of P in tropical forests exists as organic and microbial P in the soil ; plant adaptations to access organic P, including the synthesis of phosphatase enzymes, likely represent critical adaptations to low P environments. Plants also cope with low P availability through increases in P use-efficiency resulting from increased retention time of P in biomass and decreased tissue P concentration. Although foliar P responds strongly to P addition, we show here that foliar P and N:P are highly variable within communities, and at BCI correlate with regional species distributional affinity for P. An improved understanding of P limitation, and in particular the plasticity of responses to P availability, will be critical to predicting community and ecosystem responses of tropical forests to climate change.


Ecosystem nutrient budget Fertilization experiments Nutrient uptake Physiological traits Soil nutrients 


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  • James W. Dalling
    • 1
    • 2
    Email author
  • Katherine Heineman
    • 3
  • Omar R. Lopez
    • 2
    • 4
  • S. Joseph Wright
    • 5
  • Benjamin L. Turner
    • 5
  1. 1.Department of Plant BiologyUniversity of Illinois at Urbana-ChampaignUrbanaUSA
  2. 2.Smithsonian Tropical Research InstitutePanamaRepublic of Panama
  3. 3.Program in Ecology, Evolution and Conservation BiologyUniversity of Illinois at Urbana-ChampaignUrbanaUSA
  4. 4.Instituto de Investigaciones Científicas y Servicios de Alta TecnologíaCiudad de Saber, PanamaRepublic of Panama
  5. 5.Smithsonian Tropical Research InstituteBalboa, PanamaRepublic of Panama

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