Research Overview

How does variation in soil nutrient availability influence the distribution, diversity, and productivity of tropical tree species?

The distribution and growth of tropical tree species are influenced strongly by the availability of nutrients and moisture. We use regional-scale networks of forest census plots spanning gradients of nutrients, moisture, and elevation (temperature) to quantify the how environmental properties influence the ecology of individual tree species in hyperdiverse tropical forests. 

How do tropical tree species maintain productivity on infertile soils?

Tropical forests support productive forests on relatively infertile soils – how do they maintain growth despite limited nutrient availability? Many plants employ a variety of strategies to acquire and conserve nutrients, which allow them to grow efficiently at low fertility. These strategies include association with mycorrhizal fungi, secretion of organic anions from roots, extensive retranslocation of nutrients from leaves, and a range of other physiological adaptations that promote nutrient-use efficiency. Research in the Soils Lab seeks to understand how these mechanisms shape the ecology of plant communities on infertile tropical landscapes.

How do soils change over long periods of time, and how do these changes shape ecosystem development?

Soils undergo predictable changes during pedogenesis (soil development), particularly in terms of the availability of nutrients. For example, young soils tend to be rich in phosphorus but low in nitrogen, whereas old soils become progressively more depleted in phosphorus as they age. I study how soils develop over thousands to millions of years in a variety of ecosystems, and how these changes influence the ecology of above and below ground communities.  

What is the future of carbon in tropical forest soils?

Tropical soils contain enormous reserves of carbon that are vulnerable to future warming or disturbance. Research in the Soils Lab involves quantifying carbon stocks in tropical forests, understanding the carbon dynamics and gas fluxes in tropical wetlands, and the influence of warming on tropical soil carbon (the SWELTR experiment).


B.Sc., Department of Geography, University of Sheffield, UK (1996).

Ph.D., Department of Geography, Royal Holloway, University of London, UK (2000).

Selected Publications

Turner, B.L., Haygarth, P.M., 2001. Phosphorus solubilization in rewetted soils. Nature 411, 258.

Turner, B.L., Frossard, E., Baldwin, D.S. (eds), 2005. Organic Phosphorus in the Environment. CAB International, Wallingford, UK. 432 p.

Engelbrecht, B.M.J., Comita, L.S., Condit, R., Kursar, T.A., Tyree, M.T., Turner, B.L., Hubbell, S.P., 2007. Drought sensitivity shapes species distribution patterns in tropical forests. Nature 447, 80–82.

Turner, B.L., Richardson, A.E., Mullaney, E.J. (eds), 2007. Inositol Phosphates: Linking Agriculture and the Environment. CAB International, Wallingford, UK. 304 p.

Hietz, P., Turner, B.L., Wanek, W., Richter, A., Nock, C.A., Wright, S.J., 2011. Long-term change in the nitrogen cycle of tropical forests. Science 334, 664–666.

Turner, B.L., Cernusak, L.A. (eds), 2011. Ecology of the Podocarpaceae in Tropical Forests. Smithsonian Contributions to Botany, Volume 95. Smithsonian Institution Scholarly Press, Washington, D.C., USA. 207 p.

Condit, R., Engelbrecht, B.M.J., Pino, D., Pérez, R., Turner, B.L., 2013. Species distributions in response to individual soil nutrients and seasonal drought across a community of tropical trees. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 110, 5064–5068.

Laliberté, E., Zemunik, G., Turner, B.L., 2014. Environmental filtering explains variation in plant diversity along resource gradients. Science 345, 1602–1605.

Averill, C., Turner, B.L., Finzi, A.C., 2014. Mycorrhiza-mediated competition between plants and decomposers drives soil carbon storage. Nature 505, 543–545.

Teste, F.P., Kardol, P., Turner, B.L., Wardle, D.A., Zemunik, G., Renton, M., Laliberté, E., 2017. Plant-soil feedback and the maintenance of diversity in Mediterranean-climate shrublands. Science 355, 173–176.

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