Forest Physiognomy

I am old enough that I attended school at a time when educators still taught physiognomy to their students. I recall being attracted to the idea that you could predict someone’s character, criminal or violent inclinations, passions and general temperament by the location of bumps or indentations on the head, the shape of the nose, or the forward projection of the jaw. Dampening my enthusiasm, we were taught physiognomy as an example of pseudoscience, and that we should make sure to not embrace ideas simply because they were intuitively attractive. And this letdown came after I had spent several precious moments learning how to pronounce the word.

Two tranquil foreheads. Credit: Giambattista della Porta: De humana physiognomonia libri IIII. From website of the National Library of Medicine:

Later, I was delighted to learn in my plant communities class in graduate school that forests had physiognomy, and that reputable scientists actually studied it. Forest physiognomy is the general appearance of a forest, including the height, spacing and structural growth forms of its dominant species.  Michelle Spicer described to me that she went to Central America as an engineering undergraduate student, and became enraptured with tropical forests, including their physiognomy.

Tropical forest showing vast collection of lianas and a few epiphytes. Credit: Michelle Spicer.

Spicer switched from engineering to ecology, and as a graduate student realized that nobody had actually rigorously compared tropical and temperate forest physiognomy. Textbooks might talk about the importance of lianas (vines) and epiphytes (plants that grow on other plants and get nutrients from the air, water or debris lodged in their host plants) in tropical forests.  These same texts might also highlight the importance of the herbaceous layer in temperate forests. 

A temperate forest in the Smokey Mountains, USA. Credit: Michelle Spicer.

But there were few organized data to compare forest physiognomy in the two biomes. Spicer, an undergraduate student in her lab (Hannah Mellor), and her advisor (Walter Carson) chose to compare nine temperate forests and nine tropical forests, spreading across the Americas from Brazil to Canada. Each of these forests (studied by other researchers) had detailed downloadable plant species lists, which also included data about their height and reproductive status.  In total, the researchers went through over 100,000 records to create their dataset.

The figure below highlights the plant physiognomy concept. You can see that most of the species in temperate forests are herbs residing primarily in the forest floor layer.  In contrast, tropical forests have a much more even distribution of types of species, and location of growth.

The physiognomy of temperate and tropical forests. Credit: Jackie Spicer.

Quantitatively, 80% of temperate forest plant species are herbs, while only 7% are trees, and there are relatively few lianas and epiphytes.  In contrast, tropical forests boast a much more even distribution of each plant growth form.

Relative species richness of trees, shrubs, lianas, herbs and epiphytes in temperate and tropical forests.

Going along with the growth form distribution finding, most temperate plant species grow on the forest floor, while more tropical species are actually higher up (upshifted) in the understory – in part due to the prevalence of lianas and epiphytes in the understory layer.

Relative species richness of plants at different layers of temperate and tropical forests.

Spicer and her colleagues caution us that the up-shift in the tropical forest profile may be understated by the data, because even the best inventories are likely to miss epiphytes growing high in the canopy.

The tropical forest epiphyte Guzmania musaica. Credit: Michelle Spicer.

These findings have important implications for conservation and forest management.  Logging of tropical forests removes trees, but also removes lianas and epiphytes associated with trees. Lianas recover well from disturbance, but epiphytes take a long time to return following disturbance. Thus even relatively small-scale logging will significantly reduce biological diversity, not only in the plant communities, but in the many species of animals, fungi and microorganisms that interact with these plants. In contrast, temperate forests may be more resilient to logging, because the diverse herbaceous community can recover quickly, particularly if some canopy cover remains after logging.  Spicer and her colleagues argue that over-browsing by large ungulates, and changes in herbaceous species composition resulting from years of fire suppression are the two primary threats to the extensive biological diversity in the temperate forest herbaceous layer. With many species missing from the herbaceous plant community from these two sources, invasive species can take over, changing forest ecosystem functioning.  The researchers suggest that forest managers should prioritize managing the vast diversity of plant species that inhabit the temperate forest floor and understory.

note: the paper that describes this research is from the journal Ecology. The reference is Spicer, M. E., H. Mellor, and W. P. Carson. 2020. Seeing beyond the trees: a comparison of tropical and temperate plant growth-forms and their vertical distribution. Ecology 101(4):e02974. 10.1002/ecy. 2974.  Thanks to the Ecological Society of America for allowing me to use figures from the paper. Copyright © 2020 by the Ecological Society of America. All rights reserved.

Forest canopy fixes nitrogen shortage

The two billion hectares of forest canopy remaining on our planet are ideal habitat for nitrogen fixing microorganisms that can convert N2 to ammonia.


View of the forest canopy at the research site. Credit: D. Stanton.

The forest canopy tends to be nutrient-poor because there is no access to nutrients that accumulate in the soils on the forest floor, and rainfall can leach away any nutrients that do accumulate in the canopy from atmospheric deposition. So if you are a microbe, and you want to enjoy the view from the canopy, it is to your advantage to be able to fix atmospheric nitrogen so you can build essential molecules such as proteins and ATP.

As I mentioned in a previous post (Nitrogen continues to confound convention) both phosphorus (P) and molybdenum (Mo) are essential nutrients for biological nitrogen fixation.  Daniel Stanton and his colleagues hypothesized that nitrogen fixation in the canopy might be limited by the availability of P and Mo, so they designed a series of experiments to explore the role of these nutrients at the San Lorenzo Canopy Crane in San Lorenzo National Park in the Republic of Panama.  The crane provides about 1 ha of canopy access to non-acrophobic ecologists.


The crane at the research site: Credit: D. Stanton.

In one experiment, Stanton and his colleagues filled thin nylon stockings with vermiculite to form 40 cm long cylinders of 4 cm diameter.  Each cylinder was then soaked in either pure water (control), a molybdenum (Mo) compound, a phosphorus (P) compound, or a combination of Mo and P,  thus establishing four treatments. They attached each of these stockings to five different trees and allowed them to reside in the canopy for six months, to be colonized by microorganisms.


Nylon stockings treated with nutrients (or untreated controls) and affixed to branches in the canopy. Credit: D. Stanton.

The researchers measured the rate of nitrogen fixation by cutting a 50 cm2 rectangle from the area of densest growth on each stocking, and incubating it (along with the colonizing microorganisms) in a closed bottle that they had inoculated with heavy nitrogen (15N).  They then measured how much 15N the colonizers took up during a 12 hr incubation period.


Samples incubating for 12 hr to measure the rate of nitrogen fixation. Credit: D. Stanton.

The most common colonizers were nitrogen fixing filamentous cyanobacteria. These cyanobacteria fixed nitrogen at a somewhat (but not statistically significant) higher rate with Mo addition and at a much higher rate with P addition, and even more so with Mo + P addition.


Nitrogen fixation rates for each experimental treatment. C = control.  Note that the y-axis is logarithmic, so these differences in fixation rates are substantial.  Non-overlapping lowercase letters above the bars indicate significant differences between the means.

Nitrogen fixation is complex and costly.  Part of the complexity arises because nitrogenase, the enzyme that catalyzes the reaction, cannot tolerate oxygen.  To deal with this problem, cyanobacteria have evolved heterocysts, which are specialized anaerobic cells where nitrogen fixation occurs.  How does nutrient addition influence heterocyst abundance and function?

There are actually two aspects to this story.  One finding is that Mo addition had no effect on heterocyst abundance, while P addition had a pronounced effect.


Heterocyst frequency for each experimental treatment.

A second aspect is that Mo addition had a pronounced effect on the efficiency of nitrogen fixation.  For one analysis the researchers compared the nitrogen fixation rate per heterocyst for the phosphorus addition treatments either without or with Mo addition (in other words, they compared the P added treatment to the Mo + P treatment). Nitrogen fixation rates were much higher in the Mo + P treatments.  So while Mo does not increase heterocyst abundance, it does dramatically increase heterocyst fixation efficiency.


Quantity of N fixed per heterocyst per day in relation to absence (left bar) or presence (right bar) of Mo.  P was added for both treatments.  Dark horizontal lines are the median values, quartile range is represented by top and bottom of each box, and the whiskers represent the range of values for each treatment.

Phosphorus acts by markedly increasing the overall cyanobacterial growth.  It increases the amount of cyanobacteria that colonizes the canopy and also increases heterocyst density per filament. In contrast molybdenum’s effect is more nuanced as it increases the efficiency of the nitrogen fixation reaction without having any (obvious) effect on cyanobacterial structure.

How do these findings influence our understanding of tropical forests in the western hemisphere?  It turns out that episodes of nutrient addition actually happen in nature, courtesy of vast plumes of nutrient-rich rock-derived dust that periodically blow over the Atlantic Ocean from the Sahara desert in western Africa. Preliminary estimates by Stanton and his colleagues indicate that nutrient enrichment from these dust plumes is sufficient to  profoundly increase the rates of nitrogen fixation in tropical forests.  This may require us to reconsider our understanding of how nitrogen cycles within and between ecosystems.

note: the paper that describes this research is from the journal Ecology. The reference is Stanton, D. E., S. A. Batterman, J. C. Von Fischer, and L. O. Hedin. 2019. Rapid nitrogen fixation by canopy microbiome in tropical forest determined by both phosphorus and molybdenum. Ecology 100(9):e02795. 10.1002/ecy.2795. Thanks to the Ecological Society of America for allowing me to use figures from the paper. Copyright © 2019 by the Ecological Society of America. All rights reserved.