The phosphorus-rich signature of fire in the soil–plant system: a global meta-analysis

Orpheus M. Butler, James J. Elser, Tom Lewis, Brendan Mackey, Chengrong Chen

Research output: Contribution to journalLetterpeer-review

98 Scopus citations


The biogeochemical and stoichiometric signature of vegetation fire may influence post-fire ecosystem characteristics and the evolution of plant ‘fire traits’. Phosphorus (P), a potentially limiting nutrient in many fire-prone environments, might be particularly important in this context; however, the effects of fire on P cycling often vary widely. We conducted a global-scale meta-analysis using data from 174 soil studies and 39 litter studies, and found that fire led to significantly higher concentrations of soil mineral P as well as significantly lower soil and litter carbon:P and nitrogen:P ratios. These results demonstrate that fire has a P-rich signature in the soil–plant system that varies with vegetation type. Further, they suggest that burning can ease P limitation and decouple the biogeochemical cycling of P, carbon and nitrogen. These effects resemble a transient reversion to an earlier stage of ecosystem development, and likely underpin at least some of fire's impacts on ecosystems and organisms.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)335-344
Number of pages10
JournalEcology Letters
Issue number3
StatePublished - Mar 2018


We thank the many authors whose work was used in our meta-analyses, particularly those who provided additional information. We also acknowledge the support of the Griffith Environmental Biogeochemistry Research Lab, particularly Drs Mehran Rezaei Rashti, Maryam Esfandbod and Zhong-ming Lan, and our peer reviewers, whose input significantly improved our manuscript. This work was supported by a grant of Australian Research Council Future Fellowship project (FT0990547). Orpheus Butler is a recipient of the South- East Queensland Fire and Biodiversity Consortium scholarship. The authors have no conflicting interests to declare.

FundersFunder number
Australian Research CouncilFT0990547


    • biogeochemistry
    • burning
    • ecosystem decline
    • fractionation
    • nutrient limitation
    • pedogenesis
    • stoichiometry
    • succession


    Dive into the research topics of 'The phosphorus-rich signature of fire in the soil–plant system: a global meta-analysis'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

    Cite this