Leaf litter inputs reinforce islands of nitrogen fertility in a lowland tropical forest

Brooke B. Osborne, Megan K. Nasto, Fiona M. Soper, Gregory P. Asner, Christopher S. Balzotti, Cory C. Cleveland, Philip G. Taylor, Alan R. Townsend, Stephen Porder

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

22 Scopus citations


The role of lowland tropical forest tree communities in shaping soil nutrient cycling has been challenging to elucidate in the face of high species diversity. Previously, we showed that differences in tree species composition and canopy foliar nitrogen (N) concentrations correlated with differences in soil N availability in a mature Costa Rican rainforest. Here, we investigate potential mechanisms explaining this correlation. We used imaging spectroscopy to identify study plots containing 10–20 canopy trees with either high or low mean canopy N relative to the landscape mean. Plots were restricted to an uplifted terrace with relatively uniform parent material and climate. In order to assess whether canopy and soil N could be linked by litterfall inputs, we tracked litter production in the plots and measured rates of litter decay and the carbon and N content of leaf litter and leaf litter leachate. We also compared the abundance of putative N fixing trees and rates of free-living N fixation as well as soil pH, texture, cation exchange capacity, and topographic curvature to assess whether biological N fixation and/or soil properties could account for differences in soil N that were, in turn, imprinted on the canopy. We found no evidence of differences in legume communities, free-living N fixation, or abiotic properties. However, soils beneath high canopy N assemblages received ~ 60% more N via leaf litterfall due to variability in litter N content between plot types. The correlation of N in canopy leaves, leaf litter, and soil suggests that, under similar abiotic conditions, litterfall-mediated feedbacks can help maintain soil N differences among tropical tree assemblages in this diverse tropical forest.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)293-306
Number of pages14
Issue number3
StatePublished - Feb 1 2020


  • Canopy chemistry
  • Carnegie airborne observatory
  • Imaging spectroscopy
  • Plant functional traits
  • Soil


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