Soil biogeochemistry across Central and South American tropical dry forests


The availability of nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P) controls the flow of carbon (C) among plants, soils, and the atmosphere, thereby shaping terrestrial ecosystem responses to global change. Soil C, N, and P cycles are linked by drivers operating at multiple spatial and temporal scales: landscape-level variation in macroclimate, seasonality, and soil geochemistry; stand-scale heterogeneity in forest composition and structure; and microbial community dynamics at the soil pore scale. Yet in many biomes, we do not know at which scales most of the biogeochemical variation emerges, nor which processes drive cross-scale feedbacks. Here, we examined the drivers and spatial/temporal scales of variation in soil biogeochemistry across four tropical dry forests spanning steep gradients of climate, soil parent material, and plant community structure. To do so, we quantified soil C, N, and P pools, extracellular enzyme activities, and microbial community structure across wet and dry seasons in sixteen plots located in Colombia, Costa Rica, Mexico, and Puerto Rico. Soil biogeochemistry exhibited marked heterogeneity across the sixteen plots, with total organic C, N, and P pools varying four-fold, and inorganic nutrient pools by an order of magnitude. Most soil characteristics changed more across space (i.e., among sites and plots) than over time (between dry and wet season samplings). We observed stoichiometric decoupling among C, N, and P cycles, which may reflect their divergent biogeochemical drivers. Organic C and N pool sizes were positively correlated with the relative abundance of ectomycorrhizal trees and legumes. By contrast, the distribution of soil P pools was driven by soil geochemistry, with larger inorganic P pools in soils with P-rich parent material. Most earth system models assume that soils within a texture class operate similarly, and ignore sub-grid cell variation in soil properties. Here we reveal that soil nutrient pools and fluxes exhibit as much variation among four Neotropical dry forests as is observed across terrestrial ecosystems at the global scale. Thus, the biogeochemical patterns we observed across the Neotropical dry forest biome challenge representation of soil processes in ecosystem models.

Publication Date






Document Type

Data Set



Embargo Date