Phosphorus addition drastically accelerates plant succession following glacial retreat.

Authors: Eli Gendron*, University of Colorado - Boulder, John L Darcy, University of Hawaii, Dorota L Porazinska, University of Colorado - Boulder, Lara Vimercati, University of Colorado - Boulder, Steven K Schmidt, University of Colorado - Boulder
Topics: South America, Mountain Environments, Cultural Ecology
Keywords: Peru, Andes, community succession, plants, microbes, glacial retreat, climate change, phosphorus limitation, soils, freshwater, land use
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/13/2018
Start / End Time: 5:20 PM / 7:00 PM
Room: Regent, Marriott, River Tower Elevators, 4th Floor
Presentation File: No File Uploaded

Rapid glacial retreat is exposing large tracts of land and creating new lakes at high elevations
in the Cordillera Vilcanota and elsewhere in the Andes. Over the last fifteen years researchers from
the Alpine Microbial Observatory ( have been studying the processes and mechanisms of ecosystem succession in the Sibinacocha watershed of the Cordillera Vilcanota. Newly deglaciated lands are initially colonized by a diverse community of microorganisms, including many nitrogen (N) fixers such as Nostoc species. These and other cyanobacteria form globular and filamentous colonies that help stabilize and add nutrients to these new soils. Field and laboratory microcosm studies have further shown that colonization of these new lands by both plants and microorganisms is primarily limited by the availability of phosphorus (P), where the addition of P greatly accelerated the rate of ecological succession. For example, a single addition of P to field plots in 2010 caused rapid increases in soil coverage by cyanobacteria, mosses, and higher plants, such that land that had been uncovered only five years resembled plant communities of 85-year-old soils, but only in plots receiving P. To our knowledge this is the first concrete demonstration that low levels of P (rather than climate or nitrogen) is drastically limiting the colonization of newly de-glaciated lands at high elevations. This work has implications not only for understanding natural ecosystem succession but also raises practical questions of the feasibility and ethics of fertilizing newly de-glaciated lands to increase plant cover for the benefit of grazing animals and humans.

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