Establishment limitation reduces species recruitment and species richness as soil resources rise

M. Henry, H. Stevens, Daniel E. Bunker, Stefan A. Schnitzer, Walter P. Carson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

109 Scopus citations


1 At local spatial scales, species richness tends to fall as productivity rises. Most explanations have focused on increased extinction, but, instead, we test experimentally whether increased soil fertility reduces recruitment. Specifically, we test whether variation in recruitment is due to source limitation, germination limitation or establishment limitation, and how litter accumulation and seed predation contribute to these processes. 2 We established four crossed experimental treatments in a perennial-dominated early successional plant community over 3 years. We added seed of 30 species, manipulated access by selected seed predators, removed litter and added slow release fertilizer at four levels (0, 8, 16 and 32 g N m-2). 3 Species recruitment and richness both decreased with increasing fertility, but, counter to our expectations, we found that neither seed additions nor litter removal could counteract the negative effects of fertilizer. 4 Seed additions increased seedling density at all fertilizer levels, and seed predation appeared to have no influence on seedling densities. In spite of high seedling densities at all fertilizer levels, final stem density declined by 70% as fertilizer increased. A strong stem density-species richness relationship suggests that declines in final stem density caused more than half of the decline in species richness along this fertility gradient. 5 These results suggest that establishment limitation, i.e. the reduction of growth and survival from seedling to adult, controls species recruitment in highly fertile sites. 6 The high degree of recruitment limitation commonly observed in productive habitats suggests that high productivity causes establishment limitation, thereby isolating these communities from the regional species pool. We suggest that such isolation provides a mechanism to explain why the species composition of productive communities exhibits higher variability than the composition of less productive communities within the same regional source pool.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)339-347
Number of pages9
JournalJournal of Ecology
Issue number2
StatePublished - Apr 2004
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Ecology
  • Plant Science


  • Canonical lognormal species abundance distribution
  • Colonization
  • Competition
  • Diversity
  • Extinction
  • Immigration
  • Litter
  • Productivity
  • Richness
  • Seed predation


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