Sunday, June 6, 2010

Relation between properties and age of soils in the Amazon forest

The Amazon Basin is that part of South America drained by the Amazon River and its tributaries. It has a tropical climate with an annual rainfall of 1500-2500mm, and a day temperature of 30-35 degrees Celsius (Wikipedia).

Much of what we now know about tropical soils was derived from many years of research in the Amazon rainforest. It is now widely known that this very important rainforest is growing on largely infertile and highly wethered soils called Ferralsols in the IUSS World Reference Base classification or Oxisols in the USDA Soil Taxonomy (see photo of typical soil profile).

It has been suggested by some ecologists that the efficient nutrient cycling and the periodic dust deposition from Africa explain why the infertile soils are able to support the lush rainforest vegetation.
In the recent issue of the international journal Biogeosciences Discussions, Quesada and colleagues reported the results of their interesting study on the soils in the Amazon Basin. Highlights of their findings are as follows:

1. There were large variations of soil chemical and physical properties across the Amazon Basin. The properties varied, as predicted, along a gradient of pedogenic development or in other words with soil development. Contrary to the popular notion especially among ecologists and foresters, the study showed that the Amazon soils varied from young to old soils (e.g. Gleysols and Cambisols to Alisols, Acrisols and Ferralsols).

2. Nutrient pools increased slightly in concentration from the youngest to the intermediate aged soils after which it declined gradually in the older soils. The lowest values of nutrients were found in the most weathered (or oldest) soils.

3. Soil physical properties were strongly correlated with soil fertility, with favorable physical properties occurring in highly weathered and nutrient depleted soils. The least weathered and more fertile soils had higher incidence of limiting physical properties.

4. Soil phosphorus concentrations varied with the degree of weathering. Higher P concentrations were observed in younger than in older soils which agreed with results of earlier chronosequence studies like that of Walker and Syers (1976).

5. Phosphorus availability in the younger soils was governed by the weathering of the primary and secondary minerals (particularly apatite) which in turn was controlled by soil pH.


Quesada CA, Lloyd J, Schwarz M and co-workers. 2009. Chemical and physical properties of Amazon forest soil in relation to their genesis. Biogeosciences Discussions 6: 3923-3992.

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