Patterns of nitrogen-fixing tree abundance in forests across Asia and America

Duncan N.L. Menge, Ryan A. Chisholm, Stuart J. Davies, Kamariah Abu Salim, David Allen, Mauricio Alvarez, Norm Bourg, Warren Y. Brockelman, Sarayudh Bunyavejchewin, Nathalie Butt, Min Cao, Wirong Chanthorn, Wei Chun Chao, Keith Clay, Richard Condit, Susan Cordell, João Batista da Silva, H.S. Dattaraja, Ana Cristina Segalin de Andrade, Alexandre A. de OliveiraJan den Ouden, Michael Drescher, Christine Fletcher, Christian P. Giardina, C.V. Savitri Gunatilleke, I.A.U.N. Gunatilleke, Billy C.H. Hau, Fangliang He, Robert Howe, Chang Fu Hsieh, Stephen P. Hubbell, Faith M. Inman-Narahari, Patrick A. Jansen, Daniel J. Johnson, Lee Sing Kong, Kamil Král, Chen Chia Ku, Jiangshan Lai, Andrew J. Larson, Xiankun Li, Yide Li, Luxiang Lin, Yi Ching Lin, Shirong Liu, Shawn K.Y. Lum, James A. Lutz, Keping Ma, Yadvinder Malhi, Sean McMahon, William McShea, Xiangcheng Mi, Michael Morecroft, Jonathan A. Myers, Anuttara Nathalang, Vojtech Novotny, Perry Ong, David A. Orwig, Rebecca Ostertag, Geoffrey Parker, Richard P. Phillips, Kassim Abd. Rahman, Lawren Sack, Weiguo Sang, Guochun Shen, Ankur Shringi, Jessica Shue, Sheng Hsin Su, Raman Sukumar, I. Fang Sun, H.S. Suresh, Sylvester Tan, Sean C. Thomas, Pagi S. Toko, Renato Valencia, Martha I. Vallejo, Alberto Vicentini, Tomáš Vrška, Bin Wang, Xihua Wang, George D. Weiblen, Amy Wolf, Han Xu, Sandra Yap, Li Zhu, Tak Fung*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

26 Citations (Scopus)


Symbiotic nitrogen (N)-fixing trees can provide large quantities of new N to ecosystems, but only if they are sufficiently abundant. The overall abundance and latitudinal abundance distributions of N-fixing trees are well characterised in the Americas, but less well outside the Americas. Here, we characterised the abundance of N-fixing trees in a network of forest plots spanning five continents, ~5,000 tree species and ~4 million trees. The majority of the plots (86%) were in America or Asia. In addition, we examined whether the observed pattern of abundance of N-fixing trees was correlated with mean annual temperature and precipitation. Outside the tropics, N-fixing trees were consistently rare in the forest plots we examined. Within the tropics, N-fixing trees were abundant in American but not Asian forest plots (~7% versus ~1% of basal area and stems). This disparity was not explained by mean annual temperature or precipitation. Our finding of low N-fixing tree abundance in the Asian tropics casts some doubt on recent high estimates of N fixation rates in this region, which do not account for disparities in N-fixing tree abundance between the Asian and American tropics. Synthesis. Inputs of nitrogen to forests depend on symbiotic nitrogen fixation, which is constrained by the abundance of N-fixing trees. By analysing a large dataset of ~4 million trees, we found that N-fixing trees were consistently rare in the Asian tropics as well as across higher latitudes in Asia, America and Europe. The rarity of N-fixing trees in the Asian tropics compared with the American tropics might stem from lower intrinsic N limitation in Asian tropical forests, although direct support for any mechanism is lacking. The paucity of N-fixing trees throughout Asian forests suggests that N inputs to the Asian tropics might be lower than previously thought.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2598-2610
JournalJournal of Ecology
Issue number6
Early online date6 May 2019
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2019


  • forest
  • legume
  • nitrogen fixation
  • nutrient limitation
  • Smithsonian ForestGEO
  • symbiosis


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