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Geographic, environmental and biotic sources of variation in the nutrient relations of tropical montane forests

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 November 2015

James W. Dalling*
Department of Plant Biology and Program in Ecology, Evolution and Conservation Biology, University of Illinois, 505 S Goodwin Ave, Urbana, IL 61801, USA Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, Apartado Postal 0843–03092, Panama, Republic of Panama
Katherine Heineman
Department of Plant Biology and Program in Ecology, Evolution and Conservation Biology, University of Illinois, 505 S Goodwin Ave, Urbana, IL 61801, USA
Grizelle González
International Institute of Tropical Forestry, USDA Forest Service, Jardín Botánico Sur, 1201 Calle Ceiba, Río Piedras, Puerto Rico, 00926–1119, USA
Rebecca Ostertag
Department of Biology, University of Hawai‘i at Hilo, 200 W. Kawili Street, Hilo, HI 96720, USA
1Corresponding author. Email:


Tropical montane forests (TMF) are associated with a widely observed suite of characteristics encompassing forest structure, plant traits and biogeochemistry. With respect to nutrient relations, montane forests are characterized by slow decomposition of organic matter, high investment in below-ground biomass and poor litter quality, relative to tropical lowland forests. However, within TMF there is considerable variation in substrate age, parent material, disturbance and species composition. Here we emphasize that many TMFs are likely to be co-limited by multiple nutrients, and that feedback among soil properties, species traits, microbial communities and environmental conditions drive forest productivity and soil carbon storage. To date, studies of the biogeochemistry of montane forests have been restricted to a few, mostly neotropical, sites and focused mainly on trees while ignoring mycorrhizas, epiphytes and microbial community structure. Incorporating the geographic, environmental and biotic variability in TMF will lead to a greater recognition of plant–soil feedbacks that are critical to understanding constraints on productivity, both under present conditions and under future climate, nitrogen-deposition and land-use scenarios.

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Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2015

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