Send to

Choose Destination
PLoS One. 2012;7(8):e42045. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0042045. Epub 2012 Aug 3.

Nitrogen and phosphorus limitation over long-term ecosystem development in terrestrial ecosystems.

Author information

Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Princeton University, Princeton, New Jersey, United States of America.


Nutrient limitation to net primary production (NPP) displays a diversity of patterns as ecosystems develop over a range of timescales. For example, some ecosystems transition from N limitation on young soils to P limitation on geologically old soils, whereas others appear to remain N limited. Under what conditions should N limitation and P limitation prevail? When do transitions between N and P limitation occur? We analyzed transient dynamics of multiple timescales in an ecosystem model to investigate these questions. Post-disturbance dynamics in our model are controlled by a cascade of rates, from plant uptake (very fast) to litter turnover (fast) to plant mortality (intermediate) to plant-unavailable nutrient loss (slow) to weathering (very slow). Young ecosystems are N limited when symbiotic N fixation (SNF) is constrained and P weathering inputs are high relative to atmospheric N deposition and plant N:P demand, but P limited under opposite conditions. In the absence of SNF, N limitation is likely to worsen through succession (decades to centuries) because P is mineralized faster than N. Over long timescales (centuries and longer) this preferential P mineralization increases the N:P ratio of soil organic matter, leading to greater losses of plant-unavailable N versus P relative to plant N:P demand. These loss dynamics favor N limitation on older soils despite the rising organic matter N:P ratio. However, weathering depletion favors P limitation on older soils when continual P inputs (e.g., dust deposition) are low, so nutrient limitation at the terminal equilibrium depends on the balance of these input and loss effects. If NPP switches from N to P limitation over long time periods, the transition time depends most strongly on the P weathering rate. At all timescales SNF has the capacity to overcome N limitation, so nutrient limitation depends critically on limits to SNF.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]
Free PMC Article

Supplemental Content

Full text links

Icon for Public Library of Science Icon for PubMed Central
Loading ...
Support Center