Published in PLOS One Vol. 9 No. 1 (January 2014) at doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0086381


Marine-derived nutrients can increase primary productivity and change species composition of terrestrial plant communities in coastal and riverine ecosystems. We hypothesized that sea nutrient subsidies have a positive effect on nitrogen assimilation and seedling survival of non-nitrogen fixing species, increasing the relative abundance of non-nitrogen fixing species close to seashore. Moreover, we proposed that herbivores can alter the effects of nutrient supplementation by preferentially feeding on high nutrient plants. We studied the effects of nutrient fertilization by seabird guano on tree recruitment and how these effects can be modulated by herbivorous lizards in the coastal dry forests of northwestern Peru. We combined field studies, experiments and stable isotope analysis to study the response of the two most common tree species in these forests, the nitrogen-fixing Prosopis pallida and the non-nitrogen-fixing Capparis scabrida. We did not find differences in herbivore pressure along the sea-inland gradient. We found that the non-nitrogen fixing C. scabrida assimilates marine-derived nitrogen and is more abundant than P. pallida closer to guano-rich soil. We conclude that the input of marine-derived nitrogen through guano deposited by seabirds feeding in the Pacific Ocean affects the two dominant tree species of the coastal dry forests of northern Peru in contrasting ways. The non-nitrogen fixing species, C. scabrida may benefit from sea nutrient subsidies by incorporating guano-derived nitrogen into its foliar tissues, whereas P. pallida, capable of atmospheric fixation, does not.