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Keywords:

  • Community size distribution;
  • ecological stoichiometry;
  • functional diversity;
  • macroecology;
  • nitrogen;
  • net primary productivity;
  • phosphorus;
  • plant allocation;
  • vegetation biomass

Abstract

A principal challenge in ecology is to integrate physiological function (e.g. photosynthesis) across a collection of individuals (e.g. plants of different species) to understand the functioning of the entire ensemble (e.g. primary productivity). The control that organism size exerts over physiological and ecological function suggests that allometry could be a powerful tool for scaling ecological processes across levels of organization. Here we use individual plant allometries to predict how nutrient content and productivity scale with total plant biomass (phytomass) in whole plant communities. As predicted by our model, net primary productivity as well as whole community nitrogen and phosphorus content all scale allometrically with phytomass across diverse plant communities, from tropical forest to arctic tundra. Importantly, productivity data deviate quantitatively from the theoretically derived prediction, and nutrient productivity (production per unit nutrient) of terrestrial plant communities decreases systematically with increasing total phytomass. These results are consistent with the existence of pronounced competitive size hierarchies. The previously undocumented generality of these ‘ecosystem allometries’ and their basis in the structure and function of individual plants will likely provide a useful quantitative framework for research linking plant traits to ecosystem processes.