Substrate stoichiometry determines nitrogen fixation throughout succession in southern Chinese forests
The traditional view holds that biological nitrogen (N) fixation often peaks in early- or mid-successional ecosystems and declines throughout succession based on the hypothesis that soil N richness and/or phosphorus (P) depletion become disadvantageous to N fixers. This view, however, fails to support the observation that N fixers can remain active in many old-growth forests despite the presence of N-rich and/or P-limiting soils. Here, we found unexpected increases in N fixation rates in the soil, forest floor, and moss throughout three successional forests and along six age-gradient forests in southern China. We further found that the variation in N fixation was controlled by substrate carbon(C) : N and C : (N : P) stoichiometry rather than by substrate N or P. Our findings highlight the utility of ecological stoichiometry in illuminating the mechanisms that couple forest succession and N cycling.