Multiple limiting gradients in peatlands: A call for a new paradigm

Scott D. Bridgham, John J Pastor, Jan A. Janssens, Carmen Chapin, Thomas J. Malterer

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233 Scopus citations


Peatlands often have readily apparent gradients of plant species distributions, biogeochemistry, and hydrology across several spatial scales. Many inferences have been drawn about the colinearity of these gradients, and these assumptions have become ingrained in the terminology that describes and classifies peatlands. We review the literature and present some of our own data that show that many of these inferences are either wrong or correct only under a limited set of ecological conditions. We examine historical classification schemes of peatlands and, in this context, gradients of alkalinity, pH, nutrient availability for plant growth, nutrient mineralization, hydrology, and decomposition. We further suggest a strictly defined set of terms to describe separate gradients of hydrology, alkalinity, and nutrients that limit plant growth in peatlands. Specifically, we make the following suggestions concerning terminology. (1) The suffix "-trophic" should only be used when referring to nutrients that directly limit plant growth at natural availabilities (e.g., eutrophic and oligotrophic). (2) Terms such as circumneutral, moderately acid, and very acidic (or alternatively strong, intermediate, and weak) should be used to describe the pH of peatlands. (3) Ombrogenous and geogenous (or limnogenous, topogenous, and soligenous) should be used to describe the hydrology of peatlands. (4) The terms bog and fen should be defined broadly based on water/soil chemistry and dominant plant species without accompanying assumptions regarding hydrology, topography, ontogeny, nutrient availability, or the presence or absence of nondominant indicator plant species. Better yet, the generic term peatland be used when possible to avoid confusion about conditions that may or may not be present at a particular site.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)45-65
Number of pages21
Issue number1
StatePublished - Mar 1996

Bibliographical note

Copyright 2017 Elsevier B.V., All rights reserved.


  • Alkalinity
  • Decomposition
  • Hydrology
  • Multiple limiting gradients
  • Nutrients
  • Peatlands
  • Plant species distributions
  • pH


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