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

Duncan N.L. Menge, Lars O. Hedin, Stephen W. Pacala

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100 Scopus citations


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.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere42045
JournalPloS one
Issue number8
StatePublished - Aug 3 2012

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General
  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology
  • General Agricultural and Biological Sciences


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