Mangrove forests are characterized by distinctive tree-height gradients that reflect complex spatial, within-stand differences in environmental factors, including nutrient dynamics, salinity, and tidal inundation, across narrow gradients. To determine patterns of nutrient limitation and the effects of nutrient availability on plant growth and within-stand nutrient dynamics, we used a factorial experiment with three nutrient treatment levels (control, N, P) and three zones along a tree-height gradient (fringe, transition, dwarf) on offshore islands in Belize. Transects were laid out perpendicular to the shoreline across a mangrove forest from a fringe stand along the seaward edge, through a stand of intermediate height, into a dwarf stand in the interior of the island. At three sites, three trees were fertilized per zone for 2 yr. Although there was spatial variability in response, growth by R. mangle was generally nitrogen (N) -limited in the fringe zone; phosphorus (P) -limited in the dwarf zone; and, N- and/or P-limited in the transition zone. Phosphorus-resorption efficiency decreased in all three zones, and N-resorption efficiency increased in the dwarf zone in response to P enrichment. The addition of N had no effect on either P or N resorption efficiencies. Belowground decomposition was increased by P enrichment in all zones, whereas N enrichment had no effect. This study demonstrated that essential nutrients are not uniformly distributed within mangrove ecosystems; that soil fertility can switch from conditions of N to P limitation across narrow ecotonal gradients; and, that not all ecological processes respond similarly to, or are limited by, the same nutrient.
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Nitrogen vs. phosphorus limitation across an ecotonal gradient in a mangrove forest