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Conservative N cycling despite high atmospheric deposition in early successional African tropical lowland forests
Plant and Soil  (IF4.192),  Pub Date : 2022-05-06, DOI: 10.1007/s11104-022-05473-7
Isaac Ahanamungu Makelele, Marijn Bauters, Kris Verheyen, Matti Barthel, Johan Six, Tobias Rütting, Samuel Bodé, Landry Cizungu Ntaboba, Basile Mujinya Bazirake, Faustin Boyemba Bosela, Fabrice Kimbesa, Corneille Ewango, Pascal Boeckx


Across the tropics, the share of secondary versus primary forests is strongly increasing. The high rate of biomass accumulation during this secondary succession relies on the availability of essential nutrients, such as nitrogen (N). Nitrogen primarily limits many young secondary forests in the tropics. However, recent studies have shown that forests of the Congo basin are subject to high inputs of atmospheric N deposition, potentially alleviating this N limitation in early succession.


To address this hypothesis, we assessed the N status along a successional gradient of secondary forests in the Congo basin. In a set-up of 18 plots implemented along six successional stages, we quantified year-round N deposition, N leaching, N2O emission and the N flux of litterfall and fine root assimilation. Additionally, we determined the N content and C:N stoichiometry for canopy leaves, fine roots, and litter, as well as δ15N of canopy leaves.


We confirmed that these forests receive high amounts of atmospheric N deposition, with an increasing deposition as forest succession proceeds. Additionally, we noted lower C:N ratios, and higher N leaching losses, N2O emission, and foliar δ15N in older secondary forest (60 years). In contrast, higher foliar, litter and root C:N ratios, and lower foliar δ15N, N leaching, and N2O emission in young (< 20 years) secondary forest were observed.


Altogether, we show that despite high N deposition, this early forest succession still shows conservative N cycling characteristics, which are likely indicating N limitation early on in secondary forest succession. As secondary succession advances, the N cycle gradually becomes more open.