Biological Nitrogen Fixation in Two Tropical Forests: Ecosystem-Level Patterns and Effects of Nitrogen Fertilization

Cusack DF, Silver W, McDowell WH (2009b) Biological nitrogen fixation
in two tropical forests: ecosystem-level patterns and effects of nitrogen
fertilization. Ecosystems, 12, 1299–1315.

Humid tropical forests are often characterized by large nitrogen (N) pools, and are known to have large potential N losses. Although rarely measured, tropical forests likely maintain considerable biological N fixation (BNF) to balance N losses. We estimated inputs of N via BNF by free-living microbes for two tropical forests in Puerto Rico, and assessed the response to increased N availability using an on-going N fertilization experiment. Nitrogenase activity was measured across forest strata, including the soil, forest floor, mosses, canopy epiphylls, and lichens using acetylene (C2H2) reduction assays. BNF varied significantly among ecosystem compartments in both forests. Mosses had the highest rates of nitrogenase activity per gram of sample, with 11 ± 6 nmol C2H2 reduced/g dry weight/h (mean ± SE) in a lower elevation forest, and 6 ± 1 nmol C2H2/g/h in an upper elevation forest. We calculated potential N fluxes via BNF to each forest compartment using surveys of standing stocks. Soils and mosses provided the largest potential inputs of N via BNF to these ecosystems. Summing all components, total background BNF inputs were 120 ± 29 lg N/m2/h in the lower elevation forest, and 95 ± 15 lg N/m2/h in the upper elevation forest, with added N significantly suppressing BNF in soils and forest floor. Moisture content was significantly positively correlated with BNF rates for soils and the forest floor. We conclude that BNF is an active biological process across forest strata for these tropical forests, and is likely to be sensitive to increases in N deposition in tropical regions.
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