The role of terrestrial soil nutrient supply in determining the composition and productivity of epiphyte communities has been little investigated. In a montane Hawaiian rainforest, we documented dramatic increases in the abundance and species richness of canopy epiphytes in a forest that had been fertilized annually with phosphorus (P) for 15 years; there was no response in forest that had been fertilized with nitrogen (N) or other nutrients. The response of N-fixing lichens to P fertilization was particularly strong, although mosses and non-N-fixing lichens also increased in abundance and diversity. We show that enhancement of canopy P availability is the most likely factor driving the bloom in epiphytes. These results provide strong evidence that terrestrial soil fertility may structure epiphyte communities, and in particular that the abundance of N-fixing lichens – a functionally important epiphyte group – may be particularly sensitive to ecosystem P availability.
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