Nitrogen fixation in different biogeochemical niches along a 120 000-year chronosequence in New Zealand

Duncan N.L. Menge, Lars O. Hedin

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132 Scopus citations


Biological nitrogen fixation (BNF) is the major nitrogen (N) input in many terrestrial ecosystems, yet we know little about the mechanisms and feedbacks that control this process in natural ecosystems. We here examine BNF in four taxonomically and ecologically different groups over the course of forest ecosystem development. At nine sites along the Franz Josef soil chronosequence (South Westland, New Zealand) that range in age from 7 to 120000 yr old, we quantified BNF from the symbiotic plant Coriaria arborea, cyanolichens (primarily Pseudocyphellaria spp.), bryophytes (many species), and heterotrophic bacteria in leaf litter. We specifically examined whether these groups could act as "nitrostats" at the ecosystem level, turning BNF on when N is scarce (early in primary succession) and off when N is plentiful (later in succession and retrogression). Coriaria was abundant and actively fixing (∼11 kg N·ha-1·yr-1) in the youngest and most N-poor site (7 yr old), consistent with nitrostat dynamics. Coriaria maintained high BNF rates independent of soil N availability, however, until it was excluded from the community after a single generation. We infer that Coriaria is an obligate N fixer and that the nitrostat feedback is mechanistically governed by species replacement at the community level, rather than down-regulation of BNF at the physiological scale. Biological nitrogen fixation inputs from lichens (means of 0-2 kg N·ha -1·yr-1), bryophytes (0.7-10 kg N·ha -1·yr-1), and litter (1-2 kg N·ha -1·yr-1) were driven primarily by changes in density, which peaked at intermediate-aged sites (and increased with soil N availability) for both lichens and bryophytes, and grew monotonically with soil age (but did not change with soil N) for litter. This non-nitrostatic link between soil N availability and lichen/bryophyte BNF likely stems from increased tree biomass in more fertile sites, which increases epiphytic moisture conditions and habitable surface area. This apparent positive feedback could produce N-rich conditions.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2190-2201
Number of pages12
Issue number8
StatePublished - Aug 2009

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


  • Bryophyte
  • Coriaria arborea
  • Ecosystem development
  • Feedback
  • Franz Josef
  • Leaf litter
  • Lichen
  • New Zealand
  • Nitrostat
  • Primary succession
  • Pseudocyphellaria


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