The phosphorus-rich signature of fire in the soil–plant system: a global meta-analysis

Orpheus M. Butler, James J. Elser, Tom Lewis, Brendan Mackey, Chengrong Chen

Research output: Contribution to journalLetterpeer-review

60 Scopus citations


The biogeochemical and stoichiometric signature of vegetation fire may influence post-fire ecosystem characteristics and the evolution of plant ‘fire traits’. Phosphorus (P), a potentially limiting nutrient in many fire-prone environments, might be particularly important in this context; however, the effects of fire on P cycling often vary widely. We conducted a global-scale meta-analysis using data from 174 soil studies and 39 litter studies, and found that fire led to significantly higher concentrations of soil mineral P as well as significantly lower soil and litter carbon:P and nitrogen:P ratios. These results demonstrate that fire has a P-rich signature in the soil–plant system that varies with vegetation type. Further, they suggest that burning can ease P limitation and decouple the biogeochemical cycling of P, carbon and nitrogen. These effects resemble a transient reversion to an earlier stage of ecosystem development, and likely underpin at least some of fire's impacts on ecosystems and organisms.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)335-344
Number of pages10
JournalEcology letters
Issue number3
StatePublished - Mar 2018
Externally publishedYes


  • biogeochemistry
  • burning
  • ecosystem decline
  • fractionation
  • nutrient limitation
  • pedogenesis
  • stoichiometry
  • succession

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


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