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Keywords:

  • Ecosystems;
  • global ecology;
  • gradients;
  • growth-rate hypothesis;
  • macroecology;
  • nutrient productivity;
  • scaling

ABSTRACT

Aim  While physical constraints influence terrestrial primary productivity, the extent to which geographical variation in productivity is influenced by physiological adaptations and changes in vegetation structure is unclear. Further, quantifying the effect of variability in species traits on ecosystems remains a critical research challenge. Here, we take a macroecological approach and ask if variation in the stoichiometric traits (C: N: P ratios) of plants and primary productivity across global-scale temperature gradients is consistent with a scaling model that integrates recent insights from the theories of metabolic scaling and ecological stoichiometry.

Location  This study is global in scope, encompassing a wide variety of terrestrial plant communities.

Methods  We first develop a scaling model that incorporates potentially adaptive variation in leaf and whole-plant nutrient content, kinetic aspects of photosynthesis and plant respiration, and the allometry of biomass partitioning and allocation. We then examine extensive data sets concerning the stoichiometry and productivity of diverse plant communities in light of the model.

Results  Across diverse ecosystems, both foliar stoichiometry (N : P) and ‘nitrogen productivity’ (which depends on both community size structure and plant nutrient content) vary systematically across global scale temperature gradients. Primary productivity shows no relationship to temperature.

Main conclusions  The model predicts that the observed patterns of variation in plant stoichiometry and nutrient productivity may offset the temperature dependence of primary production expected from the kinetics of photosynthesis alone. Our approach provides a quantitative framework for treating potentially adaptive functional variation across communities as a continuum and may thus inform studies of global change. More generally, our approach represents one of the first explicit combinations of ecological stoichiometry and metabolic scaling theories in the analysis of macroecological patterns.