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Tropical forest above‐ground productivity is maintained by nutrients cycled in litter

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<mark>Journal publication date</mark>8/01/2024
<mark>Journal</mark>Journal of Ecology
Issue number4
Number of pages10
Pages (from-to)690-700
Publication StatusPublished
Early online date8/01/24
<mark>Original language</mark>English


Tropical forest productivity represents an important global carbon sink, but many tropical forests grow on infertile soils. Efficient nutrient cycling by litterfall has long been assumed to maintain tropical tree growth, but there is no direct evidence that the nutrients cycled in litterfall are essential for tropical forest productivity. To test whether nutrient cycling by litterfall maintains tropical forest above‐ground productivity, we established large‐scale long‐term litter removal (L−) and litter addition (L+) treatments in a mature lowland tropical forest. We hypothesised that the removal of nutrients in litter would reduce tree growth, survival and litter production in L− plots. By contrast, the addition of nutrients in litter would enhance tree growth, survival and litter production in L+ plots. To test our hypotheses, we recorded tree growth and survival every 2 years, and measured litterfall monthly during 17 years of treatments. Tree growth and litterfall declined over time in L− plots, with consistently lower growth rates compared to controls after 8 years, and lower litter production after 4 years of treatments. By contrast, although litterfall was higher in the L+ plots relative to the controls, there was only a minor transient increase in tree growth immediately after the start of treatments. Tree survival declined over time in all treatments but was not affected by litter manipulation. The long‐term decline in tree growth and litterfall in the L− plots provides the first empirical evidence that nutrient cycling by litterfall plays a key role in maintaining above‐ground productivity in this tropical forest. By contrast, the transient increase in growth in the L+ plots can be attributed to the large inputs of nutrients with the addition of the entire litter standing crop at the start of treatments. The addition of nutrients in litter over the long term was nonetheless sufficient to enhance litter production, possibly by accelerating leaf turnover. Synthesis: Efficient nutrient cycling by litterfall makes an important contribution to the annual nutrient requirements of mature tropical forest trees, compensating for infertile soils. Disturbances that disrupt this finely balanced cycle could therefore reduce biomass carbon sequestration in tropical forests.