Understanding nutrient limitation of net primary productivity (NPP) is critical to predict how plant communities will respond to environmental change. Foliar nutrients, especially nitrogen and phosphorus concentrations ([N] and [P]) and their ratio, have been used widely as indicators of plant nutritional status and have been linked directly to nutrient limitation of NPP. In tropical systems, however, a high number of confounding factors can limit the ability to predict nutrient limitation - as defined mechanistically by NPP responses to fertilization - based on the stoichiometric signal of the plant community. We used a long-term full factorial N and P fertilization experiment in a lowland tropical wet forest in Costa Rica to explore how tissue (foliar, litter and root) [N] and [P] changed with fertilization, how different tree size classes and taxa influenced the community response, and how tissue nutrients related to NPP. Consistent with NPP responses to fertilization, there were no changes in community-wide foliar [N] and [P], two years after fertilization. Nevertheless, litterfall [N] increased with N additions and root [P] increased with P additions. The most common tree species (Pentaclethra macroloba) had 9% higher mean foliar [N] with NP additions and the most common palm species (Socratea exohrriza) had 15% and 19% higher mean foliar [P] with P and NP additions, respectively. Moreover, N:P ratios were not indicative of NPP responses to fertilization, either at the community or at the taxa level. Our study suggests that in these diverse tropical forests, tissue [N] and [P] are driven by the interaction of multiple factors and are not always indicative of the nutritional status of the plant community.
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