Title

Plant responses to fertilization experiments in lowland, species-rich, tropical forests

Document Type

Article

Publication Date

5-1-2018

Abstract

© 2018 by the Ecological Society of America We present a meta-analysis of plant responses to fertilization experiments conducted in lowland, species-rich, tropical forests. We also update a key result and present the first species-level analyses of tree growth rates for a 15-yr factorial nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K) experiment conducted in central Panama. The update concerns community-level tree growth rates, which responded significantly to the addition of N and K together after 10 yr of fertilization but not after 15 yr. Our experimental soils are infertile for the region, and species whose regional distributions are strongly associated with low soil P availability dominate the local tree flora. Under these circumstances, we expect muted responses to fertilization, and we predicted species associated with low-P soils would respond most slowly. The data did not support this prediction, species-level tree growth responses to P addition were unrelated to species-level soil P associations. The meta-analysis demonstrated that nutrient limitation is widespread in lowland tropical forests and evaluated two directional hypotheses concerning plant responses to N addition and to P addition. The meta-analysis supported the hypothesis that tree (or biomass) growth rate responses to fertilization are weaker in old growth forests and stronger in secondary forests, where rapid biomass accumulation provides a nutrient sink. The meta-analysis found no support for the long-standing hypothesis that plant responses are stronger for P addition and weaker for N addition. We do not advocate discarding the latter hypothesis. There are only 14 fertilization experiments from lowland, species-rich, tropical forests, 13 of the 14 experiments added nutrients for five or fewer years, and responses vary widely among experiments. Potential fertilization responses should be muted when the species present are well adapted to nutrient-poor soils, as is the case in our experiment, and when pest pressure increases with fertilization, as it does in our experiment. The statistical power and especially the duration of fertilization experiments conducted in old growth, tropical forests might be insufficient to detect the slow, modest growth responses that are to be expected.

Publication Source (Journal or Book title)

Ecology

First Page

1129

Last Page

1138

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