Natural disturbance and human land use as determinants of tropical forest dynamics: results from a forest simulator

TitleNatural disturbance and human land use as determinants of tropical forest dynamics: results from a forest simulator
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2009
AuthorsUriarte, M, Canham, CD, Thompson, J, Zimmerman, JK, Murphy, SF, Sabat, AM, Fetcher, N, Haines, BL
JournalEcological monographs
Accession NumberLUQ.922
Keywordssubtropical wet forest

Forests are often subject to multiple, compounded disturbances, representing both natural and human-induced processes. Predicting forest dynamics requires that we consider how these disturbances interact to affect species demography. Here we present results of an individual-based, spatially explicit forest simulator that we developed to analyze the compounded effects of hurricane disturbance and land use legacies on the dynamics of a subtropical forest. We used data from the 16-ha Luquillo Forest Dynamics Plot in Puerto Rico, together with a reconstruction of historical wind damage, to parameterize the simulator. We used the model to ask two questions. (1) What are the implications of variation in hurricane frequency and severity for the long-term dynamics of forest composition, diversity, and structure? Both storm severity and frequency had striking effects on forest dynamics, composition, and structure. The periodicity of disturbance also played an important role, with periods of high hurricane activity fostering the establishment of species that may become rare in the absence of severe storms and quiescent periods allowing these species to reach reproductive size. Species responses to hurricane disturbance could not be predicted from their life history attributes. However, species perceived to be primary forest species exhibited low temporal variation in abundance through the simulations. (2) How do hurricanes and legacies from human land use interact to determine community structure and composition? Our results suggest that, over time, regardless of the storm regime, land use legacies will become less apparent but will lead to a forest community that contains a mixture of secondary and primary forest species formerly dominant in areas of different land use. In the long term, hurricane disturbance generated two communities with slightly greater similarity than those not subject to storms. Thus, the inclusion of hurricane disturbance does not alter the prediction that land use legacies in this tropical forest will diminish over time. Our simulations also highlight the contingent effects of human legacies on subsequent community dynamics, including the response to hurricane disturbance, therefore supporting the notion that compounded disturbances can interact in ways that cannot be predicted by the study of single disturbances. The widespread importance of land use as a large-scale disturbance makes it imperative that it be addressed as a fundamental ecological process.