Differential responses to guano fertilization among tropical tree species with varying functional traits

Am J Bot. 2011 Feb;98(2):207-14. doi: 10.3732/ajb.1000159. Epub 2011 Jan 7.


Premise of the study: Seabirds often cause significant changes to soil properties, and seabird-dominated systems often host unique plant communities. This study experimentally (1) examined species-specific responses to seabird guano gradients, (2) considered the role that differential functional traits among species play in altering plant response to guano, and (3) investigated the implications of seabird guano on range-expanding species.

Methods: Using a greenhouse fertilization experiment, we examined how guano fertilization affects the growth and functional traits of four tree species dominant in the Pacific Islands: Cocos nucifera, Pisonia grandis, Scaevola sericea, and Tournefortia argentea. In these systems, seabirds are frequently found in association with three of these four species; the remaining species, C. nucifera, is a recently proliferating species commonly found in the region but rarely associated with seabirds.

Key results: We determined that responses to guano addition differed significantly between species in ways that were consistent with predictions based on differing functional traits among species. Notably, we demonstrated that C. nucifera showed no growth responses to guano additions, whereas all seabird-associated plants showed strong responses.

Conclusions: These results provide experimental evidence of differential species response to guano additions, suggesting that differences in species functional traits may contribute to changes in plant communities in seabird-dominated areas, with seabird-associated species garnering performance advantages in these high-nutrient environments. Among these species, results also suggest that C. nucifera may have a competitive advantage in low-nutrient environments, providing an unusual example of how a range-expanding plant species can profit from low-nutrient environments.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Birds*
  • Boraginaceae / growth & development
  • Cocos / growth & development
  • Fertilizers*
  • Geography
  • Magnoliopsida / classification
  • Magnoliopsida / growth & development*
  • Manure*
  • Nyctaginaceae / growth & development
  • Species Specificity
  • Trees / classification
  • Trees / growth & development*
  • Tropical Climate


  • Fertilizers
  • Manure