Plant-soil associations in a lower montane tropical forest: Physiological acclimation and herbivore-mediated responses to nitrogen addition

Kelly M. Andersen, Marife D. Corre, Benjamin L. Turner, James W. Dalling

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Soil nutrients influence plant productivity and community composition in tropical forests. In lower montane tropical forests in western Panama, the distribution of understory palm species over a scale of 1-20 km correlates with differences in soil nitrogen (N). We hypothesized that soil N determines seedling performance in the forest understory, and, may therefore influence species distributions along the soil N gradient. We explored the potential for N availability to generate species-habitat associations through species-specific differences in biomass allocation, photosynthetic capacity, N use-efficiency, and susceptibility to herbivory. Seedlings of nine palm species from two sub-families and four habitat types were transplanted into N-addition and control plots at a low N site. Growth, mortality, biomass allocation, photosynthesis, foliar N content and herbivory were measured over 21 months. Foliar N increased for all species (15-68%) following N addition. Most species showed strong (20-200%) increases in photosynthetic rates with N addition except two species with marginal decreases in photosynthetic rates (5-15%). However, shifts in physiological traits did not increase relative growth rate or change in biomass allocation for any species or N treatment combination. Rather, increased leaf quality contributed to greater levels of herbivory in species associated with soils of intermediate and high inorganic N availability. Thus, potential increases in overall growth with N addition were masked by herbivory, resulting in no apparent growth response with increased N. We suggest that for understory palms, and potentially other montane forest plants, distribution patterns are driven by a combination of physiological and herbivore-mediated responses to soil nutrient availability.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1171-1180
Number of pages10
JournalFunctional Ecology
Issue number6
StatePublished - Dec 2010


  • Arecaceae
  • Fertilization
  • Growth trade-offs
  • Habitat association
  • Panama
  • Seedling transplant experiment

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


Dive into the research topics of 'Plant-soil associations in a lower montane tropical forest: Physiological acclimation and herbivore-mediated responses to nitrogen addition'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this