The prevailing paradigm for soil microbial activity in tropical forests is that microbial activity is limited by phosphorus (P) availability. Thus, exogenous P addition should increase rates of organic matter decomposition. Studies have also confirmed that soil respiration is accelerated when P is added experimentally. However, we hypothesize that the increased rates of soil microbial respiration could be due to the release of organic material from the surface of soil minerals when P is added, because P is more successful at binding to soil particles than organic compounds. In this study, we demonstrate that P addition to soil is associated with significantly higher dissolved organic carbon (DOC) content in a tropical evergreen forest in southern China. Our results indicate that P fertilization stimulated soil respiration but suppressed litter decomposition. Results from a second sorption experiment revealed that the recovery ratio of added DOC in the soil of a plot fertilized with P for 9 years was larger than the ratio in the soil of a non-fertilized plot, although the difference was small. We also conducted a literature review on the effects of P fertilization on the decomposition rates of litter and soil organic matter at our study site. Previous studies have consistently reported that P addition led to higher response ratios of soil microbial respiration than litter decomposition. Therefore, experiments based on P addition cannot be used to test whether microbial activity is P-limited in tropical forest soils, because organic carbon desorption occurs when P is added. Our findings suggest that the prevailing paradigm on the relationship between P and microbial activity in tropical forest soils should be re-evaluated.
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