Isotopic evidence for large gaseous nitrogen losses from tropical rainforests

Benjamin Z. Houlton, Daniel M. Sigman, Lars O. Hedin

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274 Scopus citations


The nitrogen isotopic composition (15N/14N) of forested ecosystems varies systematically worldwide. In tropical forests, which are elevated in 15N relative to temperate biomes, a decrease in ecosystem 15N/14N with increasing rainfall has been reported. This trend is seen in a set of well characterized Hawaiian rainforests, across which we have measured the 15N/14N of inputs and hydrologic losses. We report that the two most widely purported mechanisms, an isotopic shift in N inputs or isotopic discrimination by leaching, fail to explain this climate-dependent trend in 15N/ 14N. Rather, isotopic discrimination by microbial denitrification appears to be the major determinant of N isotopic variations across differences in rainfall. In the driest climates, the 15N/14N of total dissolved outputs is higher than that of inputs, which can only be explained by a 14N-rich gas loss. In contrast, in the wettest climates, denitrification completely consumes nitrate in local soil environments, thus preventing the expression of its isotope effect at the ecosystem scale. Under these conditions, the 15N/14N of bulk soils and stream outputs decrease to converge on the low 15N/14N of N inputs. N isotope budgets that account for such local isotopic underexpression suggest that denitrification is responsible for a large fraction (24-53%) of total ecosystem N loss across the sampled range in rainfall.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)8745-8750
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number23
StatePublished - Jun 6 2006

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General


  • Climate
  • Ecosystem
  • Global change
  • Isotope
  • Tropics


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