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Bromeliad growth and stoichiometry: responses to atmospheric nutrient supply in fog-dependent ecosystems of the hyper-arid Atacama Desert, Chile

Abstract

Carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus (C, N, P) stoichiometry influences the growth of plants and nutrient cycling within ecosystems. Indeed, elemental ratios are used as an index for functional differences between plants and their responses to natural or anthropogenic variations in nutrient supply. We investigated the variation in growth and elemental content of the rootless terrestrial bromeliad Tillandsia landbeckii, which obtains its moisture, and likely its nutrients, from coastal fogs in the Atacama Desert. We assessed (1) how fog nutrient supply influences plant growth and stoichiometry and (2) the response of plant growth and stoichiometry to variations in nutrient supply by using reciprocal transplants. We hypothesized that T. landbeckii should exhibit physiological and biochemical plastic responses commensurate with nutrient supply from atmospheric deposition. In the case of the Atacama Desert, nutrient supply from fog is variable over space and time, which suggests a relatively high variation in the growth and elemental content of atmospheric bromeliads. We found that the nutrient content of T. landbeckii showed high spatio-temporal variability, driven partially by fog nutrient deposition but also by plant growth rates. Reciprocal transplant experiments showed that transplanted individuals converged to similar nutrient content, growth rates, and leaf production of resident plants at each site, reflecting local nutrient availability. Although plant nutrient content did not exactly match the relative supply of N and P, our results suggest that atmospheric nutrient supply is a dominant driver of plant growth and stoichiometry. In fact, our results indicate that N uptake by T. landbeckii plants depends more on N supplied by fog, whereas P uptake is mainly regulated by within-plant nutrient demand for growth. Overall, these findings indicate that variation in fog nutrient supply exerts a strong control over growth and nutrient dynamics of atmospheric plants, which are ubiquitous across fog-dominated ecosystems.

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Acknowledgments

We thank Carlos Garín, Martín Escobar, Margarita Ruíz, Sebastián Armesto, and Moisés Aguilera for helping with field sampling. Comments from Claudio Latorre and Marcia Kyle improved the manuscript. This project was funded by FONDECYT-FONDAP 1501-0001 (Programs 3 and 4), by FONDECYT 3090029, by CONICYT 24050045, by FONDECYT 1040783/2004, by a grant from Mideplan (Millennium Scientific Initiative) to the Instituto de Ecologia y Biodiversidad (ICM P05-002), and by Contract PFB-23, Conicyt, Chile.

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Correspondence to Angélica L. González.

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Communicated by Mercedes Bustamante.

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González, A.L., Fariña, J.M., Pinto, R. et al. Bromeliad growth and stoichiometry: responses to atmospheric nutrient supply in fog-dependent ecosystems of the hyper-arid Atacama Desert, Chile. Oecologia 167, 835–845 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00442-011-2032-y

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Keywords

  • Atmospheric deposition
  • Ephiphytes
  • Growth rate
  • Nitrogen
  • Nutrient ratios
  • Nutrient supply
  • Phosphorus