Multiple Soil Nutrient Competition between Plants, Microbes, and Mineral Surfaces
- Develop, calibrate, and test a nutrient competition model that accounts for multiple soil nutrients and abiotic consumers
- Calibrate and test model against N and P fertilization experiments
- Predict dynamic competitive regimes
- The model accurately replicated the experimentally manipulated forest responses that were not used in model calibration
- Relative competitiveness of consumers was dynamic. For NH4, nitrifiers and decomposers were comparably competitive and out-competed roots
- These mechanisms are being integrated in ALM and tested against >80 field studies
Soil is a complex system where biotic (e.g., plant roots, micro-organisms) and abiotic (e.g., mineral surfaces) consumers compete for resources necessary for life (e.g., nitrogen, phosphorus). This competition is ecologically significant, since it regulates the dynamics of soil nutrients and controls aboveground plant productivity. Here we develop, calibrate and test a nutrient competition model that accounts for multiple soil nutrients interacting with multiple biotic and abiotic consumers. As applied here for tropical forests, the Nutrient COMpetition model (N-COM) includes three primary soil nutrients (NH4+, NO3− and POx; representing the sum of PO43−, HPO42− and H2PO4−) and five potential competitors (plant roots, decomposing microbes, nitrifiers, denitrifiers and mineral surfaces). The competition is formulated with a quasi-steady-state chemical equilibrium approximation to account for substrate (multiple substrates share one consumer) and consumer (multiple consumers compete for one substrate) effects. N-COM successfully reproduced observed soil heterotrophic respiration, N2O emissions, free phosphorus, sorbed phosphorus and NH4+ pools at a tropical forest site (Tapajos). The overall model uncertainty was moderately well constrained. Our sensitivity analysis revealed that soil nutrient competition was primarily regulated by consumer–substrate affinity rather than environmental factors such as soil temperature or soil moisture. Our results also imply that under strong nutrient limitation, relative competitiveness depends strongly on the competitor functional traits (affinity and nutrient carrier enzyme abundance). We then applied the N-COM model to analyze field nitrogen and phosphorus perturbation experiments in two tropical forest sites (in Hawaii and Puerto Rico) not used in model development or calibration. Under soil inorganic nitrogen and phosphorus elevated conditions, the model accurately replicated the experimentally observed competition among nutrient consumers. Although we used as many observations as we could obtain, more nutrient addition experiments in tropical systems would greatly benefit model testing and calibration. In summary, the N-COM model provides an ecologically consistent representation of nutrient competition appropriate for land BGC models integrated in Earth System Models.