Leaf N:P ratio does not predict productivity trends across natural terrestrial ecosystems

Jiahui Zhang, Lars O. Hedin, Mingxu Li, Li Xu, Pu Yan, Guanhua Dai, Nianpeng He

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

8 Scopus citations


Nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P) are crucial nutrients for regulating plant growth. The classic growth rate hypothesis (GRH) proposes that fast-growing organisms have lower N:P ratios, and it is promising to predict net primary productivity (NPP) using the leaf N:P ratio at the community level (N:PCom). However, whether leaf N:P ratio can predict NPP in natural ecosystems on a large scale remains nebulous. Here, we systematically calculated leaf N:PCom (community biomass-weighted mean and species arithmetic mean) using the consistently measured data of 2192 plant species-site combinations and productivity (biomass-based aboveground NPP and flux-based NPP) in 66 natural ecosystems in China. Unexpectedly, leaf N:PCom hardly predicted productivity in natural ecosystems due to their weak correlation, although significantly negative or positive relationships across different ecosystems were observed. The ambiguous relationship between leaf N:P and species dominance reflected a luxury consumption of N and P in turnover and structure in natural communities, unlike what GRH suggests. Climate, soil, and leaf nutrients (rather than N:P) influenced productivity, which highlighted the importance of external environment and nutrient constrains. Our findings pose a major challenge for leaf N:PCom as a direct parameter in productivity models and further question the direct application of classic hypotheses in short-term experiments or model species to long-term and complex natural ecosystems.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere3789
Issue number11
StatePublished - Nov 2022

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


  • community
  • growth rate hypothesis
  • net primary productivity
  • nitrogen
  • phosphorus
  • stoichiometry


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