Large losses of inorganic nitrogen from tropical rainforests suggest a lack of nitrogen limitation

E. N J Brookshire, Stefan Gerber, Duncan N L Menge, Lars O. Hedin

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103 Scopus citations


Inorganic nitrogen losses from many unpolluted mature tropical forests are over an order of magnitude higher than losses from analogous temperate forests. This pattern could either reflect a lack of N limitation or accelerated plant-soil N cycling under tropical temperatures and moisture. We used a simple analytical framework of the N cycle and compared our predictions with data of N in stream waters of temperate and tropical rainforests. While the pattern could be explained by differences in N limitation, it could not be explained based on up-regulation of the internal N cycle without invoking the unlikely assumption that tropical plants are two to four times less efficient at taking up N than temperate plants. Our results contrast with the idea that a tropical climate promotes and sustains an up-regulated and leaky - but N-limited - internal N cycle. Instead, they are consistent with the notion that many tropical rainforests exist in a state of N saturation.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)9-16
Number of pages8
JournalEcology letters
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2012

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


  • Analytical model
  • Biogeochemical theory
  • Biogeochemistry
  • Climate
  • N losses
  • N saturation
  • Nitrogen (N) limitation and cycling
  • Plant-soil cycle
  • Temperate rainforest
  • Tropical rainforest


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