Organic forms dominate hydrologic nitrogen export from a lowland tropical watershed

Philip G. Taylor, William R. Wieder, Samantha Weintraub, Sagy Cohen, Cory C. Cleveland, Alan R. Townsend, P. H. Templer

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

42 Scopus citations


Observations of high dissolved inorganic nitrogen (DIN) concentrations in stream water have reinforced the notion that primary tropical rain forests cycle nitrogen (N) in relative excess compared to phosphorus. Here we test this notion by evaluating hydrologic N export from a small watershed on the Osa Peninsula, Costa Rica, where prior research has shown multiple indicators of conservative N cycling throughout the ecosystem. We repeatedly measured a host of factors known to influence N export for one year, including stream water chemistry and upslope litterfall, soil N availability and net N processing rates, and soil solution chemistry at the surface, 15- and 50-cm depths. Contrary to prevailing assumptions about the lowland N cycle, we find that dissolved organic nitrogen (DON) averaged 85% of dissolved N export for 48 of 52 consecutive weeks. For most of the year stream water nitrate (NO3∼) export was very low, which reflected minimal net N processing and DIN leaching from upslope soils. Yet, for one month in the dry season, NO3∼ was the major component of N export due to a combination of low flows and upslope nitrification that concentrated NO3∼ in stream water. Particulate organic N (PON) export was much larger than dissolved forms at 14.6 kg N-ha-1-yr-1, driven by soil erosion during storms. At this rate, PON export was slightly greater than estimated inputs from free-living N fixation and atmospheric N deposition, which suggests that erosion-driven PON export could constrain ecosystem level N stocks over longer timescales. This phenomenon is complimentary to the "DON leak" hypothesis, which postulates that the long-term accumulation of ecosystem N in unpolluted ecosystems is constrained by the export of organic N independently of biological N demand. Using an established global sediment generation model, we illustrate that PON erosion may be an important vector for N loss in tropical landscapes that are geomorphically active. This study supports an emerging view that landscape geomorphology influences nutrient biogeochemistry and limitation, though more research is needed to understand the mechanisms and spatial significance of erosional N loss from terrestrial ecosystems.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1229-1241
Number of pages13
Issue number5
StatePublished - May 1 2015


  • Biogeochemistry
  • Costa Rica
  • Ecosystem ecology
  • Nutrient cycling
  • Nutrient limitation
  • Osa Peninsula
  • Tropical rain forest
  • Watershed hydrology


Dive into the research topics of 'Organic forms dominate hydrologic nitrogen export from a lowland tropical watershed'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this