Plant and Soil

, Volume 391, Issue 1–2, pp 77–91 | Cite as

Changes in nitrogen and phosphorus limitation during secondary succession in a karst region in southwest China

  • Wei Zhang
  • Jie Zhao
  • Fujing Pan
  • Dejun Li
  • Hongsong Chen
  • Kelin Wang
Regular Article


Background and aims

Nitrogen (N) and/or phosphorus (P) limitation to primary productivity and other biological processes can change in a variety of ways as ecosystems develop. How N limitation and P limitation change from the early to the late stages of a secondary succession following farmland abandonment remains unclear in karst ecosystems in southwest China.


We used community foliar N:P ratio, soil alkaline phosphatase activity (APA) and other indicators of nutrient status (soil organic carbon [SOC], total soil N [TN], and total soil P [TP], Alkali-hydrolyzable N [AN], and available soil phosphorus [AP] concentrations) to examine changes in N and P status during secondary vegetation succession. Four types of plant communities (grasslands, shrublands, secondary forest, and primary forest) represented the early, middle, late, and very late successional stages, respectively.


Community foliar N:P ratio, APA, and APA per unit SOC increased as succession proceeded from the grassland to the secondary and primary forest communities. Moreover, community foliar N:P ratios in the grassland were positively correlated with soil TN, while community foliar N:P ratios in the secondary forest and primary forest were negatively correlated with soil TP, but were not correlated with soil TN. Community foliar N:P ratios in the shrubland were not correlated with either soil TN or TP.


Our results suggest that the grassland in the karst region of southwest China is N limited, that the secondary and primary forests are P limited, and that the shrubland is constrained by N and P together or by other nutrients.


Nitrogen limitation Phosphorus limitation N:P ratio Phosphatase activity Vegetation succession Karst ecosystems 



Alkaline phosphatase activity


Soil organic carbon



This study was supported by the National Basic Research Program of China (2015CB452703), the Chinese Academy of Sciences through its Hundred Talent Program to Dejun Li, two grants from the National Natural Science Foundation of China (31270555 and 31300448), and a grant from the Western Light Program from CAS to Wei Zhang. We appreciate Dr. Harry Olde Venterink and the anonymous reviewers for their time and constructive comments and suggestions.


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  • Wei Zhang
    • 1
    • 2
  • Jie Zhao
    • 1
    • 2
  • Fujing Pan
    • 1
    • 2
    • 3
  • Dejun Li
    • 1
    • 2
  • Hongsong Chen
    • 1
    • 2
  • Kelin Wang
    • 1
    • 2
  1. 1.Key Laboratory of Agro-ecological Processes in Subtropical Region, Institute of Subtropical AgricultureChinese Academy of SciencesChangshaChina
  2. 2.Huanjiang Observation and Research Station for Karst EcosystemsChinese Academy of SciencesHuanjiangChina
  3. 3.Graduate School of the Chinese Academy of SciencesBeijingChina

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