It is unclear to what extent tropical dry forest productivity may be limited by nutrients. Direct assessment of nutrient limitation through fertilization experiments has been rare, and paradigms pertaining to other ecosystems may not extend to tropical dry forests. For example, because dry tropical forests have a lower water supply than moist tropical forests, dry forests can have lower decomposition rates, higher soil carbon and nitrogen concentrations, and a more open nitrogen cycle than moist forests. We used a mechanistic, numerical model to generate hypotheses about nutrient limitation in tropical dry forests. The model dynamically couples ED2 (vegetation dynamics), MEND (biogeochemistry), and N-COM (plant-microbe competition for nutrients). Here, the MEND-component of the model has been extended to include nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P) cycles. We focus on simulation of sixteen 25m x 25m plots in Costa Rica where a fertilization experiment has been underway since 2015.
Baseline simulations are characterized by both nitrogen and phosphorus limitation of vegetation. Fertilization with N and P increased vegetation biomass, with N fertilization having a somewhat stronger effect. Nutrient limitation was also sensitive to climate and was more pronounced during drought periods. Overflow respiration was identified as a key process that mitigated nutrient limitation. These results suggest that, despite often having richer soils than tropical moist forests, tropical dry forests can also become nutrient-limited. If the climate becomes drier in the next century, as is expected for Central America, drier soils may decrease microbial activity and exacerbate nutrient limitation. The importance of overflow respiration underscores the need for appropriate treatment of microbial dynamics in ecosystem models. Ongoing and new nutrient fertilization experiments will present opportunities for testing whether, and how, nutrient limitation may indeed be emerging in tropical dry forests.