Variable Responses of Lowland Tropical Forest Nutrient Status to Fertilization and Litter Manipulation

Emma J. Sayer, UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology
S. Joseph Wright, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute
Edmund V.J. Tanner, University of Cambridge
Joseph B. Yavitt, Cornell University
Kyle E. Harms, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute
Jennifer S. Powers, University of Minnesota Twin Cities
Michael Kaspari, University of Oklahoma
Milton N. Garcia, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute
Benjamin L. Turner, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute


Predicting future impacts of anthropogenic change on tropical forests requires a clear understanding of nutrient constraints on productivity. We compared experimental fertilization and litter manipulation treatments in an old-growth lowland tropical forest to distinguish between the effects of inorganic nutrient amendments and changes in nutrient cycling via litterfall. We measured the changes in soil and litter nutrient pools, litterfall, and fine root biomass in plots fertilized with nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), or potassium (K), and in litter addition and litter removal treatments during 7 years. Soil inorganic N and litter N increased in double-litter plots but not in N-fertilized plots. Conversely, litter P and soil pools of P and K increased in fertilized plots but not in the double-litter plots. Soil and litter pools of N and K decreased in the no-litter plots. Changes in litterfall with added nutrients or litter were only marginally significant, but fine root biomass decreased with both the litter and the K addition. Differences between the two experiments are mostly attributable to the coupled cycling of carbon and nutrients in litter. Increased nutrient inputs in litter may improve plant uptake of some nutrients compared to fertilization with similar amounts. The litter layer also appears to play a key role in nutrient retention. We discuss our findings in the context of possible impacts of anthropogenic change on tropical forests. © 2012 Springer Science+Business Media, LLC.