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  1. Lianas are major contributors to tropical forest dynamics, yet we know little about their mortality. Using overlapping censuses of the lianas and trees across a 50 ha stand of moist tropical forest, we contrasted community-wide patterns of liana mortality with relatively well-studied patterns of tree mortality to quantify patterns of liana death and identify contributing factors. Liana mortality rates were 172% higher than tree mortality rates, but species-level mortality rates of lianas were similar to trees with ‘fast’ life-history strategies and both growth forms exhibited similar spatial and size-dependent patterns. The mortality rates of liana saplings (<2.1 cm in diameter), which represent about 50% of liana individuals, decreased with increasing disturbance severity and remained consistently low during post-disturbance stand thinning. In contrast, larger liana individuals and trees of all sizes had elevated mortality rates in response to disturbance and their mortality rates decreased over time since disturbance. Within undisturbed forest patches, liana mortality rates increased with increasing soil fertility in a manner similar to trees. The distinct responses of liana saplings to disturbance appeared to distinguish liana mortality from that of trees, whereas similarities in their patterns of death suggest that there are common drivers of woody plant mortality.

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    Free, publicly-accessible full text available June 1, 2025
  2. Abstract

    The latitudinal diversity gradient (LDG) dominates global patterns of diversity1,2, but the factors that underlie the LDG remain elusive. Here we use a unique global dataset3to show that vascular plants on oceanic islands exhibit a weakened LDG and explore potential mechanisms for this effect. Our results show that traditional physical drivers of island biogeography4—namely area and isolation—contribute to the difference between island and mainland diversity at a given latitude (that is, the island species deficit), as smaller and more distant islands experience reduced colonization. However, plant species with mutualists are underrepresented on islands, and we find that this plant mutualism filter explains more variation in the island species deficit than abiotic factors. In particular, plant species that require animal pollinators or microbial mutualists such as arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi contribute disproportionately to the island species deficit near the Equator, with contributions decreasing with distance from the Equator. Plant mutualist filters on species richness are particularly strong at low absolute latitudes where mainland richness is highest, weakening the LDG of oceanic islands. These results provide empirical evidence that mutualisms, habitat heterogeneity and dispersal are key to the maintenance of high tropical plant diversity and mediate the biogeographic patterns of plant diversity on Earth.

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    Free, publicly-accessible full text available March 14, 2025
  3. Understanding how resource limitation and biotic interactions interact across spatial scales is fundamental to explaining the structure of ecological communities. However, empirical studies addressing this issue are often hindered by logistical constraints, especially at local scales. Here, we use a highly tractable arboreal ant study system to explore the interactive effects of resource availability and competition on community structure across three local scales: an individual tree, the nest network created by each colony and the individual ant nest. On individual trees, the ant assemblages are primarily shaped by availability of dead wood, a critical nesting resource. The nest networks within a tree are constrained by the availability of nesting resources but also influenced by the co-occurring species. Within individual nests, the distribution of adult ants is only affected by distance to interspecific competitors. These findings demonstrate that resource limitation exerts the strongest effects on diversity at higher levels of local ecological organization, transitioning to a stronger effect of species interactions at finer scales. Collectively, these results highlight that the process exerting the strongest influence on community structure is highly dependent on the scale at which we examine the community, with shifts occurring even across fine-grained local scales.

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    Free, publicly-accessible full text available September 27, 2024
  4. Dyer, Lee (Ed.)
    Abstract Lightning is a common agent of disturbance in many forest ecosystems. Lightning-damaged trees are a potentially important resource for beetles, but most evidence for this association is limited to temperate pine forests. Here, we evaluated the relationship between lightning damage and beetle colonization of tropical trees. We recorded the number of beetle holes on the trunks of trees from 10 strike sites (n = 173 lightning-damaged trees) and 10 matching control sites (n = 137 control trees) in Panama. The trunks of lightning-struck trees had 370% more beetle holes than control trees. The abundance of beetle holes increased with increasing total crown dieback among both control and lightning-damaged trees, and with larger tree diameter among lightning-struck trees. Beetle holes also were more abundant in trunk sections of lightning-damaged trees located directly below a damaged section of the crown. The results of this study suggest that lightning damage facilitates beetle colonization in tropical forest trees and provide a basis for investigations of the effects of lightning-caused disturbance on beetle population dynamics and assemblage structure. 
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  5. Summary

    Lightning is an important agent of plant mortality and disturbance in forests. Lightning‐caused disturbance is highly variable in terms of its area of effect and disturbance severity (i.e. tree damage and death), but we do not know how this variation is influenced by forest structure and plant composition.

    We used a novel lightning detection system to quantify how lianas influenced the severity and spatial extent (i.e. area) of lightning disturbance using 78 lightning strikes in central Panama.

    The local density of lianas (measured as liana basal area) was positively associated with the number of trees killed and damaged by lightning, and patterns of plant damage indicated that this occurred because lianas facilitated more electrical connections from large to small trees. Liana presence, however, did not increase the area of the disturbance. Thus, lianas increased the severity of lightning disturbance by facilitating damage to additional trees without influencing the footprint of the disturbance.

    These findings indicate that lianas spread electricity to damage and kill understory trees that otherwise would survive a strike. As liana abundance increases in tropical forests, their negative effects on tree survival with respect to the severity of lightning‐related tree damage and death are likely to increase.

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  6. Abstract

    We surveyed seven lightning strike sites in the northern Peruvian Amazon. An average of 17.3 trees were damaged per strike; large trees (> 60 cm diameter) were disproportionately affected. The results contribute to a growing body of evidence that lightning is an important agent of disturbance pantropically.

    Abstract in Spanish is available with online material.

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  7. Abstract

    Lightning is a common source of disturbance, but its ecological effects in tropical forests are largely undescribed. Here we quantify the contributions of lightning strikes to forest turnover and plant mortality in a lowland Panamanian forest using a real‐time lightning monitoring system. We examined 2,195 lightning‐damaged trees distributed among 93 different strikes. None exhibited scars or fires. On average, each strike disturbed 451 m2(95% CI: 365–545 m2), created a canopy gap of 304 m2(95% CI 198–454 m2), and caused 7.36 Mg of woody biomass turnover (CI: 5.36–9.65 Mg). Cumulatively, we estimate that lightning strikes in this forest create canopy gaps equaling 0.39% of forest canopy area, representing 20.1% of annual gap area formation, and are responsible for 16.1% of total woody biomass turnover. Trees, lianas, herbaceous climbers and epiphytes were killed by lightning at rates 8–29 times greater than their baseline mortality rates in undamaged control sites. The likelihood of lightning‐caused death was higher for trees, lianas, and herbaceous climbers than for epiphytes, and high liana mortality suggests that lightning is an important driver of liana turnover. These results indicate that lightning influences gap dynamics, plant community composition and carbon storage capacity in some tropical forests.

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  8. Abstract

    Lightning is a major agent of disturbance, but its ecological effects in the tropics are unquantified. Here we used ground and satellite sensors to quantify the geography of lightning strikes in terrestrial tropical ecosystems, and to evaluate whether spatial variation in lightning frequency is associated with variation in tropical forest structure and dynamics. Between 2013 and 2018, tropical terrestrial ecosystems received an average of 100.4 million lightning strikes per year, and the frequency of strikes was spatially autocorrelated at local‐to‐continental scales. Lightning strikes were more frequent in forests, savannas, and urban areas than in grasslands, shrublands, and croplands. Higher lightning frequency was positively associated with woody biomass turnover and negatively associated with aboveground biomass and the density of large trees (trees/ha) in forests across Africa, Asia, and the Americas. Extrapolating from the only tropical forest study that comprehensively assessed tree damage and mortality from lightning strikes, we estimate that lightning directly damages c. 832 million trees in tropical forests annually, of which c. 194 million die. The similarly high lightning frequency in tropical savannas suggests that lightning also influences savanna tree mortality rates and ecosystem processes. These patterns indicate that lightning‐caused disturbance plays a major and largely unappreciated role in pantropical ecosystem dynamics and global carbon cycling.

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  9. Abstract

    Tree death due to lightning influences tropical forest carbon cycling and tree community dynamics. However, the distribution of lightning damage among trees in forests remains poorly understood.

    We developed models to predict direct and secondary lightning damage to trees based on tree size, crown exposure and local forest structure. We parameterized these models using data on the locations of lightning strikes and censuses of tree damage in strike zones, combined with drone‐based maps of tree crowns and censuses of all trees within a 50‐ha forest dynamics plot on Barro Colorado Island, Panama.

    The likelihood of a direct strike to a tree increased with larger exposed crown area and higher relative canopy position (emergent > canopy >>> subcanopy), whereas the likelihood of secondary lightning damage increased with tree diameter and proximity to neighbouring trees. The predicted frequency of lightning damage in this mature forest was greater for tree species with larger average diameters.

    These patterns suggest that lightning influences forest structure and the global carbon budget by non‐randomly damaging large trees. Moreover, these models provide a framework for investigating the ecological and evolutionary consequences of lightning disturbance in tropical forests.

    Synthesis. Our findings indicate that the distribution of lightning damage is stochastic at large spatial grain and relatively deterministic at smaller spatial grain (<15 m). Lightning is more likely to directly strike taller trees with large crowns and secondarily damage large neighbouring trees that are closest to the directly struck tree. The results provide a framework for understanding how lightning can affect forest structure, forest dynamics and carbon cycling. The resulting lightning risk model will facilitate informed investigations into the effects of lightning in tropical forests.

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