Soil fertility and fine root dynamics in response to 4 years of nutrient (N, P, K) fertilization in a lowland tropical moist forest, Panama

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The question of how tropical trees cope with infertile soils has been challenging to address, in part, because fine root dynamics must be studied in situ. We used annual fertilization with nitrogen (N as urea, 12.5gNm-2year-1), phosphorus (P as superphosphate, 5gPm-2year-1) and potassium (K as KCl, 5gKm-2year-1) within 38ha of old-growth lowland tropical moist forest in Panama and examined fine root dynamics with minirhizotron images. We expected that added P, above all, would (i) decrease fine root biomass but, (ii) have no impact on fine root turnover. Soil in the study area was moderately acidic (pH=5.28), had moderate concentrations of exchangeable base cations (13.4cmolkg-1), low concentrations of Bray-extractable phosphate (PO4=2.2mgkg-1), and modest concentrations of KCl-extractable nitrate (NO3=5.0mgkg-1) and KCl-extractable ammonium (NH4=15.5mgkg-1). Added N increased concentrations of KCl-extractable NO3 and acidified the soil by one pH unit. Added P increased concentrations of Bray-extractable PO4 and P in the labile fraction. Concentrations of exchangeable K were elevated in K addition plots but reduced by N additions. Fine root dynamics responded to added K rather than added P. After 2 years, added K decreased fine root biomass from 330 to 275gm-2. The turnover coefficient of fine roots <1mm diameter ranged from 2.6 to 4.4 per year, and the largest values occurred in plots with added K. This study supported the view that biomass and dynamics of fine roots respond to soil nutrient availability in species-rich, lowland tropical moist forest. However, K rather than P elicited root responses. Fine roots smaller than 1mm have a short lifetime (<140 days), and control of fine root production by nutrient availability in tropical forests deserves more study. © 2010 The Authors. Journal compilation © 2010 Ecological Society of Australia.

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Austral Ecology

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