Phosphorus fertilization is eradicating the niche of northern Eurasia’s threatened plant species

Martin Joseph Wassen, Julian Schrader, Jerry van Dijk, Maarten Boudewijn Eppinga

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


The greater bioavailability of nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and potassium (K) in the Anthropocene has strongly impacted terrestrial plant communities. In northwest Europe, because high N deposition is considered the main driver of plant diversity loss, European Union (EU) legislation to reduce N deposition is expected to promote plant species recovery. However, this expectation is simplistic: it ignores the role of other macronutrients. Analysing the relationship between plant species pools and species stoichiometric niches along nutrient gradients across northern Eurasia’s herbaceous ecosystems, we found that both absolute and relative P availability are more critical than N or K availability. This result is consistent with stoichiometric niche theory, and with findings from studies of hyperdiverse forests and shrublands at lower latitudes. We show that ecosystems with low absolute and relative P availability harbour a unique set of threatened species that have narrower nutrient-based niche widths than non-threatened species. Such ecosystems represent a conservation priority, but may be further threatened by latent effects of relative P enrichment arising from reduction of N availability without simultaneous reduction of P. The narrow focus of EU legislation on reducing N, but not P, may therefore inadvertently increase the threat to many of Europe’s already threatened plant species. An EU Phosphate Directive is needed.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)67-73
Number of pages21
JournalNature Ecology and Evolution
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2021


  • Biodiversity
  • Biogeochemistry
  • Conservation biology
  • Environmental impact
  • Plant ecology


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