Variation in wood nutrients along a tropical soil fertility gradient

Katherine D. Heineman, Benjamin L. Turner, James W. Dalling

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Wood contains the majority of the nutrients in tropical trees, yet controls over wood nutrient concentrations and their function are poorly understood. We measured wood nutrient concentrations in 106 tree species in 10 forest plots spanning a regional fertility gradient in Panama. For a subset of species, we quantified foliar nutrients and wood density to test whether wood nutrients scale with foliar nutrients at the species level, or wood nutrient storage increases with wood density as predicted by the wood economics spectrum. Wood nutrient concentrations varied enormously among species from fourfold in nitrogen (N) to > 30-fold in calcium (Ca), potassium (K), magnesium (Mg) and phosphorus (P). Community-weighted mean wood nutrient concentrations correlated positively with soil Ca, K, Mg and P concentrations. Wood nutrients scaled positively with leaf nutrients, supporting the hypothesis that nutrient allocation is conserved across plant organs. Wood P was most sensitive to variation in soil nutrient availability, and significant radial declines in wood P indicated that tropical trees retranslocate P as sapwood transitions to heartwood. Wood P decreased with increasing wood density, suggesting that low wood P and dense wood are traits associated with tree species persistence on low fertility soils. Substantial variation among species and communities in wood nutrient concentrations suggests that allocation of nutrients to wood, especially P, influences species distributions and nutrient dynamics in tropical forests.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)440-454
Number of pages15
JournalThe New phytologist
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jul 1 2016


  • Fortuna Forest Reserve
  • environmental gradients
  • functional traits
  • nutrient limitation
  • phosphorus cycling
  • stoichiometry
  • wood density

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Physiology
  • Plant Science


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