N/P imbalance as a key driver for the invasion of oligotrophic dune systems by a woody legume

  • Articles in SCI Journals
  • Mar, 2017

Ulm, F., Hellmann. C., Cruz, C. & Máguas, C. (2017) N/P imbalance as a key driver for the invasion of oligotrophic dune systems by a woody legume.


Oikos, 126(2), 231-240. DOI:10.1111/oik.03810 (IF2015 3,586; Q1 Ecology)

Oligotrophic ecosystems, previously considered to be more resilient to invasive plants, are now recognised to be highly vulnerable to invasions. In these systems, woody legumes show belowground ecosystem engineering characteristics that enable invasion, however, the underlying processes are not well understood. Using a Portuguese primary dune ecosystem as an oligotrophic model system, belowground biomass pools, turnover rates and stoichiometry of a native (Stauracanthus spectabilis) and an invasive legume (Acacia longifolia) were compared and related to changes in the foliage of the surrounding native (Corema album) vegetation.

We hypothesized that the invasive legume requires less phosphorus per unit of biomass produced and exhibits an enhanced nutrient turnover compared to the native vegetation, which could drive invasion by inducing a systemic N/P imbalance.

Compared with the native legumes, A. longifolia plants had larger canopies, higher SOM levels and lower tissue P concentrations. These attributes were strongly related to legume influence as measured by increased foliar N content and less depleted δ15N signatures in the surrounding C. album vegetation. Furthermore, higher root N concentration and increased nutrient turnover in the rhizosphere of the invader were associated with depleted foliar P in C. album.

Our results emphasize that while A. longifolia itself maintains an efficient phosphorus use in biomass production, at the same time it exerts a strong impact on the N/P balance of the native system. Moreover, this study highlights the engineering of a belowground structure of roots and rhizosphere as a crucial driver for invasion, due to its central role in nutrient turnover. These findings provide new evidence that, under nutrient-limited conditions, considering co-limitation and nutrient cycling in oligotrophic systems is essential to understand the engineering character of invasive woody legumes.