Why are nitrogen-fixing trees rare at higher compared to lower latitudes?

Duncan N.L. Menge, Sarah A. Batterman, Lars O. Hedin, Wenying Liao, Stephen Wilson Pacala, Benton N. Taylor

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

30 Scopus citations


Symbiotic nitrogen (N) fixation provides a dominant source of new N to the terrestrial biosphere, yet in many cases the abundance of N-fixing trees appears paradoxical. N-fixing trees, which should be favored when N is limiting, are rare in higher latitude forests where N limitation is common, but are abundant in many lower latitude forests where N limitation is rare. Here, we develop a graphical and mathematical model to resolve the paradox. We use the model to demonstrate that N fixation is not necessarily cost effective under all degrees of N limitation, as intuition suggests. Rather, N fixation is only cost effective when N limitation is sufficiently severe. This general finding, specific versions of which have also emerged from other models, would explain sustained moderate N limitation because N-fixing trees would either turn N fixation off or be outcompeted under moderate N limitation. From this finding, four general hypothesis classes emerge to resolve the apparent paradox of N limitation and N-fixing tree abundance across latitude. The first hypothesis is that N limitation is less common at higher latitudes. This hypothesis contradicts prevailing evidence, so is unlikely, but the following three hypotheses all seem likely. The second hypothesis, which is new, is that even if N limitation is more common at higher latitudes, more severe N limitation might be more common at lower latitudes because of the capacity for higher N demand. Third, N fixation might be cost effective under milder N limitation at lower latitudes but only under more severe N limitation at higher latitudes. This third hypothesis class generalizes previous hypotheses and suggests new specific hypotheses. For example, greater trade-offs between N fixation and N use efficiency, soil N uptake, or plant turnover at higher compared to lower latitudes would make N fixation cost effective only under more severe N limitation at higher latitudes. Fourth, N-fixing trees might adjust N fixation more at lower than at higher latitudes. This framework provides new hypotheses to explain the latitudinal abundance distribution of N-fixing trees, and also provides a new way to visualize them. Therefore, it can help explain the seemingly paradoxical persistence of N limitation in many higher latitude forests.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)3127-3140
Number of pages14
Issue number12
StatePublished - Dec 2017

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


  • ecosystem
  • facultative N fixers
  • latitude
  • legume
  • limitation
  • nitrogen fixation
  • obligate N fixers
  • theory
  • tree


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