The nitrogen paradox in tropical forest ecosystems

Lars O. Hedin, E. N.Jack Brookshire, Duncan N.L. Menge, Alexander R. Barron

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

263 Scopus citations


Observations of the tropical nitrogen (N) cycle over the past half century indicate that intact tropical forests tend to accumulate and recycle large quantities of N relative to temperate forests, as evidenced by plant and soil N to phosphorus (P) ratios, by P limitation of plant growth in some tropical forests, by an abundance of N-fixing plants, and by sustained export of bioavailable N at the ecosystem scale. However, this apparent up-regulation of the ecosystem N cycle introduces a biogeochemical paradox when considered from the perspective of physiology and evolution of individual plants: The putative source for tropical N richness-symbiotic N fixation-should, in theory, be physiologically down-regulated as internal pools of bioavailable N build. We review the evidence for tropical N richness and evaluate several hypotheses that may explain its emergence and maintenance. We propose a leaky nitrostat model that is capable of resolving the paradox at scales of both ecosystems and individual N-fixing organisms.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)613-635
Number of pages23
JournalAnnual Review of Ecology, Evolution, and Systematics
StatePublished - Dec 1 2009

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Ecology


  • Global biogeochemistry
  • Nitrogen cycle
  • Nitrogen fixation
  • Nutrients
  • Phosphorus
  • Tropical forests

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