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Carbon : nitrogen stoichiometry in forest ecosystems during stand development


Yuanhe Yang, Department of Botany and Microbiology, University of Oklahoma, Norman, OK 73019, USA. E-mail:


Aim  Carbon (C) and nitrogen (N) stoichiometry is a critical indicator of biogeochemical coupling in terrestrial ecosystems. However, our current understanding of C : N stoichiometry is mainly derived from observations across space, and little is known about its dynamics through time.

Location  Global secondary forests.

Methods  We examined temporal variations in C : N ratios and scaling relationships between N and C for various ecosystem components (i.e. plant tissue, litter, forest floor and mineral soil) using data extracted from 39 chronosequences in forest ecosystems around the world.

Results  The C : N ratio in plant tissue, litter, forest floor and mineral soil exhibited large variation across various sequences, with an average of 145.8 ± 9.4 (mean ± SE), 49.9 ± 3.0, 38.2 ± 3.1 and 18.5 ± 0.9, respectively. In most sequences, the plant tissue C : N ratio increased significantly with stand age, while the C : N ratio in litter, forest floor and mineral soil remained relatively constant over the age sequence. N and C scaled isometrically (i.e. the slope of the relationship between log-transformed N and C is not significantly different from 1.0) in litter, forest floor and mineral soil both within and across sequences, but not in plant tissue either within or across sequences. The C : N ratio was larger in coniferous forests than in broadleaf forests and in temperate forests than in tropical forests. In contrast, the N–C scaling slope did not reveal significant differences either between coniferous and broadleaf forests or between temperate and tropical forests.

Main conclusions  These results suggest that C and N become decoupled in plants but remain coupled in other ecosystem components during stand development.