Nitrogen stable isotopic composition of leaves and soil: Tropical versus temperate forests

L. A. Martinelli, M. C. Piccolo, A. R. Townsend, P. M. Vitousek, E. Cuevas, W. McDowell, G. P. Robertson, O. C. Santos, K. Treseder

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Several lines of evidence suggest that nitrogen in most tropical forests is relatively more available than N in most temperate forests, and even that it may function as an excess nutrient in many tropical forests. If this is correct, tropical forests should have more open N cycles than temperate forests, with both inputs and outputs of N large relative to N cycling within systems. Consequent differences in both the magnitude and the pathways of N loss imply that tropical forests should in general he more 15N enriched than are most temperate forests. In order to test this hypothesis, we compared the nitrogen stable isotopic composition of tree leaves and soils from a variety of tropical and temperate forests. Foliar δ15N values from tropical forests averaged 6.5‰ higher than from temperate forests. Within the tropics, ecosystems with relatively low N availability (montane forests, forests on sandy soils) were significantly more depleted in 15N than other tropical forests. The average δ15N values for tropical forest soils, either for surface or for depth samples, were almost 8‰ higher than temperate forest soils. These results provide another line of evidence that N is relatively abundant in many tropical forest ecosystems.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)45-65
Number of pages21
Issue number1-3
StatePublished - 1999


  • N15
  • Nitrogen
  • Nutrient cycling
  • Plants
  • Soil
  • Stable isotopes
  • Temperate forest
  • Tropical forest


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