Variation of tropical forest assembly processes across regional environmental gradients

TitleVariation of tropical forest assembly processes across regional environmental gradients
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2016
AuthorsMuscarella, R, Uriarte, M, Erickson, DL, Swenson, NG, Kress, WJ, Zimmerman, JK
JournalPerspectives in Plant Ecology, Evolution and Systematics
Accession NumberLUQ.1237
Keywordsabiotic filtering, competition, Functional diversity, LMA, Maximum height, wood density
AbstractDetermining how the relative strength of community assembly processes varies along resource gradients is critical for understanding community responses to environmental change. A key challenge for addressing this issue at regional scales is that environmental gradients typically encompass multiple coupled resource gradients (e.g. water, light, soils), which can complicate hypotheses about the drivers of community variation. We used data on functional traits and phylogenetic relatedness to infer assembly processes of tree communities across regional environmental gradients in Puerto Rico. We censused trees in 24, 0.25-ha mature plots located along a precipitation gradient and on soils derived from two parent materials (limestone and volcanic). In each plot, we quantified abiotic conditions in terms of mean annual precipitation, canopy openness, and soil nutrients. We used three functional traits with relevance for drought tolerance and resource acquisition strategies (wood density [WD], leaf mass per area [LMA], and maximum height [Hmax]), and a molecular phylogeny, to characterize tree community composition in terms of (i) community-weighted mean trait values (i.e., plot average trait values, weighted by relative basal area), (ii) functional diversity, and (iii) phylogenetic diversity. Mean annual precipitation was negatively correlated with understory light availability (for plots on both soil types), and soil fertility (among plots on limestone soils). Soil fertility varied substantially between plots on each parent material, and was generally higher among plots on limestone-derived soils. Among the limestone soil plots, which occur on the drier half of the precipitation gradient, increasing mean annual precipitation was associated with lower community-weighted mean WD and LMA, and taller Hmax. Additionally, functional diversity (of WD and Hmax) and phylogenetic diversity increased with precipitation among limestone soil plots, suggesting an important role for abiotic filtering in driving functional and phylogenetic convergence in arid conditions. In contrast, we did not find significant relationships between environmental conditions and community-weighted mean traits or diversity metrics among plots on volcanic-derived soils, which occur along the wetter half of the precipitation gradient. Together, our results suggest that drought tolerance is the dominant assembly mechanism controlling tree composition in dry forests. In wetter forests, functional diversity appears to be maintained by a combination of hierarchical competition for light and niche partitioning. Overall, our results exhibit geographic variation in the mechanisms governing composition of tropical forests across regional environmental gradients, and highlight the importance of considering complex environmental gradients at large spatial scales.