Chronic N deposition to forests may induce N saturation and stand decline, leading to reduced ecosystem N retention capacity, triggered by a shift from N limitation of trees to limitation by another nutrient. We conducted a15N soil labelling experiment in non-fertilized and P-fertilized plots at two elevations in an N-saturated Mediterranean-fir (Abies pinsapo) forest in southern Spain which shows P limitation symptoms. Root-exclusion was applied to identify the relative contributions of roots (plus mycorrhizal fungi) uptake, and heterotrophic immobilization by free-living microbes, to N retention. Overall15N recovery from the litter, 0-15-cm soil and root-uptake components was c.a. 35% higher in P-fertilized than in non-fertilized plots at both elevations. In non-fertilized plots, soil was the biggest sink for added15N. Phosphorus fertilization increased the competitive ability of tree roots for soil N resulting in equal importance of the autotrophic (roots plus associated mycorhizal fungi) and heterotrophic (free-living microbes) components with respect to total15N recovery in P-fertilized plots. Phosphorus addition increased litter and soil N immobilization only if roots had been excluded. By combining in situ fertilization, root-exclusion and isotope labelling we have demonstrated that reduced N retention capacity and dominance of soil microbial over plant immobilization in a N-saturated forest results from a shift from N to P limitation of trees, while alleviation of P limitation makes tree roots and associated mycorrhizal fungi competitive for N against free soil microorganisms. © 2012 Elsevier Ltd.
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