Successional vegetation dynamics in wet tropical forests at multiple scales: integrating neighbourhood effects, functional traits, and phylogeny

Collaborators: Robin Chazdon (University of Connecticut), Nate Swenson (Michigan State University), Jess Zimmerman (University of Puerto Rico) and John Kress (Smithsonian Institution).

Secondary forests in the tropics currently comprise roughly half the world’s remaining tropical forests. Despite the increasing importance of secondary forest regeneration throughout the tropics, research on the ecology and dynamics of secondary forests has lagged behind studies conducted in mature forests. The inherent complexity of successional processes challenges our ability to provide clear predictions of the future status of tropical secondary forests and their global role in sustaining biodiversity and ecosystem services. Both stochastic and deterministic processes drive secondary forest succession and  stand-level patterns are highly dependent on physical and biotic features of the disturbed site and of the surrounding landscape and region.

We have developed a novel research program to integrate detailed phylogenetic, functional trait, and long-term successional forest dynamics data within a spatially explicit Bayesian modeling framework to assess the relative importance of habitat filtering, niche differentiation, and recruitment limitation in driving tropical forest community. Our modeling approach to forecasting successional dynamics using spatially-explicit models will utilize three types of information: (1) long-term spatially-referenced demographic databases of assemblages of tree species in seedling, sapling, and tree size classes in forests at different successional stages; (2) databases of leaf, wood, and seed functional traits for species within these forests, incorporating species-level variation across plots and ontogenetic stages; and (3) highly resolved, species-level phylogenies for the regional species pools in both study areas.

Our research is conducted in the Luquillo Forest Dynamics Plot (LFDP), a 16-ha plot of subtropical wet forest in the Luquillo Experimental Forest in Puerto Rico, part of a Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) site and the Smithsonian network of large plots (CTFS) and at a series of long-term secondary successional plots near La Selva field station in Costa Rica (The Bosques project).

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