Trees adjust nutrient acquisition strategies across tropical forest secondary succession

Michelle Y. Wong, Nina Wurzburger, Jefferson S. Hall, S. Joseph Wright, Wenguang Tang, Lars O. Hedin, Kristin Saltonstall, Michiel van Breugel, Sarah A. Batterman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Nutrient limitation may constrain the ability of recovering and mature tropical forests to serve as a carbon sink. However, it is unclear to what extent trees can utilize nutrient acquisition strategies – especially root phosphatase enzymes and mycorrhizal symbioses – to overcome low nutrient availability across secondary succession. Using a large-scale, full factorial nitrogen and phosphorus fertilization experiment of 76 plots along a secondary successional gradient in lowland wet tropical forests of Panama, we tested the extent to which root phosphatase enzyme activity and mycorrhizal colonization are flexible, and if investment shifts over succession, reflective of changing nutrient limitation. We also conducted a meta-analysis to test how tropical trees adjust these strategies in response to nutrient additions and across succession. We find that tropical trees are dynamic, adjusting investment in strategies – particularly root phosphatase – in response to changing nutrient conditions through succession. These changes reflect a shift from strong nitrogen to weak phosphorus limitation over succession. Our meta-analysis findings were consistent with our field study; we found more predictable responses of root phosphatase than mycorrhizal colonization to nutrient availability. Our findings suggest that nutrient acquisition strategies respond to nutrient availability and demand in tropical forests, likely critical for alleviating nutrient limitation.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)132-144
Number of pages13
JournalNew Phytologist
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jul 2024

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Physiology
  • Plant Science


  • mycorrhizal fungi
  • nitrogen
  • nutrient acquisition strategies
  • nutrient limitation
  • phosphorus
  • root phosphatase
  • secondary succession
  • tropical forests


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