Controls over foliar N:P ratios in tropical rain forests

Alan R. Townsend, Cory C. Cleveland, Gregory P. Asner, Mercedes M.C. Bustamante

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

412 Scopus citations


Correlations between foliar nutrient concentrations and soil nutrient availability have been found in multiple ecosystems. These relationships have led to the use of foliar nutrients as an index of nutrient status and to the prediction of broadscale patterns in ecosystem processes. More recently, a growing interest in ecological stoichiometry has fueled multiple analyses of foliar nitrogen : phosphorus (N:P) ratios within and across ecosystems. These studies have observed that N:P values are generally elevated in tropical forests when compared to higher latitude ecosystems, adding weight to a common belief that tropical forests are generally N rich and P poor. However, while these broad generalizations may have merit, their simplicity masks the enormous environmental heterogeneity that exists within the tropics; such variation includes large ranges in soil fertility and climate, as well as the highest plant species diversity of any biome. Here we present original data on foliar N and P concentrations from 150 mature canopy tree species in Costa Rica and Brazil, and combine those data with a comprehensive new literature synthesis to explore the major sources of variation in foliar N:P values within the tropics. We found no relationship between N:P ratios and either latitude or mean annual precipitation within the tropics alone. There is, however, evidence of seasonal controls; in our Costa Rica sites, foliar N:P values differed by 25% between wet and dry seasons. The N:P ratios do vary with soil P availability and/or soil order, but there is substantial overlap across coarse divisions in soil type, and perhaps the most striking feature of the data set is variation at the species level. Taken as a whole, our results imply that the dominant influence on foliar N:P ratios in the tropics is species variability and that, unlike marine systems and perhaps many other terrestrial biomes, the N:P stoichiometry of tropical forests is not well constrained. Thus any use of N:P ratios in the tropics to infer larger-scale ecosystem processes must comprehensively account for the diversity of any given site and recognize the broad range in nutrient requirements, even at the local scale.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)107-118
Number of pages12
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2007


  • Brazil
  • Costa Rica
  • Foliar nitrogen
  • Foliar phosphorus
  • N:P ratio
  • Nutrient limitation
  • Tropical rain forest


Dive into the research topics of 'Controls over foliar N:P ratios in tropical rain forests'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this