In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Terrestrial Resource Limitation

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • Historical Accounts
  • Theory
  • Co-Limitation

Ecology Terrestrial Resource Limitation
Joseph Craine
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 August 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199830060-0130


Limitation is a broad term in ecology, but it is used to represent a number of patterns or processes that constrain other patterns or processes. “Resource limitation” is generally associated with reductions in rates of resource uptake, biomass production, or population growth that are caused by low availability of energy and materials such as carbon, water, and other essential elements (nutrients). All organisms can be limited by any resource, and thus limitation is a universal phenomenon. Here, resource limitation is addressed primarily in terrestrial plants but also terrestrial herbivores and microbes. As noted in the Historical Accounts section, the concept of limitation goes back to the early 1800s, primarily from agronomic studies. The early understanding of limitation developed to incorporate a rich body of theory and empirical investigations of controls over limitation. A number of experiments and surveys coupled with models and physiological investigations of organisms helped to develop our understanding of limitation by individual resources (water, nutrients, light, and carbon dioxide), as well as multiple resources (co-limitation).

General Overviews

Understanding resource limitation requires a firm grounding in the ecology of populations, communities, and ecosystems, as well as the ecophysiology of plants. Chapin, et al. 2011 is the second edition of a text on ecosystem ecology containing many important chapters that lay the groundwork on the behavior of major resources. Craine 2009, Tilman 1982, and Grime 2001 are similar in that they examine the roles of limiting resources in the adaptations of plants and their interactions with the environment. Vitousek 2004 synthesizes a career of work in Hawaii and provides a template for understanding general patterns of resource limitation in other parts of the world.

  • Chapin, F. S., P. A. Matson, and P. Vitousek. 2011. Principles of terrestrial ecosystem ecology. New York: Springer.

    Main textbook for ecosystem ecology. Covers many of the processes that generate limitation and patterns of limitation across ecosystems.

  • Craine, J. 2009. Resource strategies of wild plants. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

    Examines the nature of limitation for plants and the evolutionary and ecological consequences of limitation. Sections on each of the major resources as well as historical development of ideas of limitation.

  • Grime, J. P. 2001. Plant strategies, vegetation processes, and ecosystem properties. 2d ed. Chichester, UK: Wiley.

    Major lineage of thought on limitation in plants. Develops ideas on the adaptations of plants to low resource availability and extends them to the assembly of communities and functioning of ecosystems.

  • Tilman, D. 1982. Resource competition and community structure. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

    Book on the mechanisms by which plants compete for resources. The section on the different types of resources is most pertinent here. Details the differences between resource types, e.g., substitutable and essential resources.

  • Vitousek, P. 2004. Nutrient cycling and limitation: Hawai’i as a model system. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

    Synthesis of a broad range of work on limitation in Hawaii. Uses state-factor approach to characterize not only development of ecosystems and changes in nitrogen and phosphorus availability but a range of other important topics such as proximal and distal controls of nutrient limitation.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.