Out of the shadows: multiple nutrient limitations drive relationships among biomass, light and plant diversity

W. Stanley Harpole, Lauren L Sullivan, Eric M. Lind, Jennifer Firn, Peter B. Adler, Elizabeth Borer, Jonathan Chase, Philip A. Fay, Yann Hautier, Helmut Hillebrand, Andrew S. MacDougall, Eric Seabloom, Jonathan D. Bakker, Marc W. Cadotte, Enrique J. Chaneton, Chengjin Chu, Nicole Hagenah, Kevin Kirkman, Kimberly J. La Pierre, Joslin L. MooreJohn W. Morgan, Suzanne M. Prober, Anita C. Risch, Martin Schuetz, Carly J. Stevens

Research output: Contribution to journalComment/debatepeer-review

52 Scopus citations


The paradigmatic hypothesis for the effect of fertilisation on plant diversity represents a one-dimensional trade-off for plants competing for below-ground nutrients (generically) and above-ground light: fertilisation reduces competition for nutrients while increasing biomass and thereby shifts competition for depleted available light. The essential problem of this simple paradigm is that it misses both the multivariate and mechanistic nature of the factors that determine biodiversity as well as their causal relationships. We agree that light limitation, as DeMalach and Kadmon argue, can indeed be an important factor associated with diversity loss, and we presented it as an integral part of our tests of the niche dimension hypothesis. We disagree with DeMalach and Kadmon that light is the ‘main’ factor explaining diversity, because this misrepresents the causal structure represented in the design of our experiment in which multiple nutrient addition was the ultimate causal driver of a suite of correlated responses that included diversity and light, and especially live and dead biomass, which are the factors that control light depletion. Our findings highlight that multiple nutrient limitations can structure plant diversity and composition independently of changes in light and biomass. For example, approximately one-third of our sites showed no significant increase in biomass with greater number of added nutrients yet still lost diversity when nutrients were added. The important message is that while light limitation can be an important contributor to diversity loss, it is not a necessary mechanism.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1839-1846
Number of pages8
JournalFunctional Ecology
Issue number9
StatePublished - Sep 2017

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2017 The Authors. Functional Ecology © 2017 British Ecological Society


  • biodiversity
  • light
  • multivariate causal relationships
  • nutrient limitation
  • resource limitation


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