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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2007 Dec 26;104(52):20696-701. Epub 2007 Dec 19.

Ecological feedbacks following deforestation create the potential for a catastrophic ecosystem shift in tropical dry forest.

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  • 1Department of Environmental Sciences, University of Virginia, Clark Hall, P.O. Box 400123, Charlottesville, VA 22904, USA.

Erratum in

  • Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2008 Feb 26;105(8):3169.


The long-term ecological response to recurrent deforestation associated with shifting cultivation remains poorly investigated, especially in the dry tropics. We present a study of phosphorus (P) dynamics in the southern Yucatán, highlighting the possibility of abrupt shifts in biogeochemical cycling resulting from positive feedbacks between vegetation and its limiting resources. After three cultivation-fallow cycles, available soil P declines by 44%, and one-time P inputs from biomass burning decline by 76% from mature forest levels. Interception of dust-borne P ("canopy trapping") declines with lower plant biomass and leaf area, limiting deposition in secondary forest. Potential leaching losses are greater in secondary than in mature forest, but the difference is very small compared with the difference in P inputs. The decline in new P from atmospheric deposition creates a long-term negative ecosystem balance for phosphorus. The reduction in soil P availability will feed back to further limit biomass recovery and may induce a shift to sparser vegetation. Degradation induced by hydrological and biogeochemical feedbacks on P cycling under shifting cultivation will affect farmers in the near future. Without financial support to encourage the use of fertilizer, farmers could increase the fallow period, clear new land, or abandon agriculture for off-farm employment. Their response will determine the regional balance between forest loss and forest regrowth, as well as the frequency of use and rate of recovery at a local scale, further feeding back on ecological processes at multiple scales.

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