Nutrient regulation of organic matter decomposition in a tropical rain forest

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Terrestrial biosphere-atmosphere CO2 exchange is dominated by tropical forests, so understanding how nutrient availability affects carbon (C) decomposition in these ecosystems is central to predicting the global C cycle's response to environmental change. In tropical rain forests, phosphorus (P) limitation of primary production and decomposition is believed to be widespread, but direct evidence is rare. We assessed the effects of nitrogen (N) and P fertilization on litter-layer organic matter decomposition in two neighboring tropical rain forests in southwest Costa Rica that are similar in most ways, but that differ in soil P availability. The sites contain 100-200 tree species per hectare and between species foliar nutrient content is variable. To control for this heterogeneity, we decomposed leaves collected from a widespread neotropical species, Brosimum utile. Mass loss during decomposition was rapid in both forests, with B. utile leaves losing >80% of their initial mass in <300 days. High organic matter solubility throughout decomposition combined with high rainfall support a model of litter-layer decomposition in these rain forests in which rapid mass loss in the litter layer is dominated by leaching of dissolved organic matter (DOM) rather than direct CO2 mineralization. While P fertilization did not significantly affect mass loss in the litter layer, it did stimulate P immobilization in decomposing material, leading to increased P content and a lower C:P ratio in soluble DOM. In turn, increased P content of leached DOM stimulated significant increases in microbial mineralization of DOM in P-fertilized soil. These results show that, while nutrients may not affect mass loss during decomposition in nutrient-poor, wet ecosystems, they may ultimately regulate CO2 losses (and hence C storage) by limiting microbial mineralization of DOM leached from the litter layer to soil.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)492-503
Number of pages12
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 2006


  • Brosimum utile
  • Decomposition
  • Dissolved organic carbon (DOC)
  • Dissolved organic matter (DOM)
  • Fertilization
  • Leaching
  • Nitrogen
  • Nutrient limitation
  • Phosphorus
  • Tropical rain forest


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