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  1. Summary

    Climate models predict that everwet western Amazonian forests will face warmer and wetter atmospheric conditions, and increased cloud cover. It remains unclear how these changes will impact plant reproductive performance, such as flowering, which plays a central role in sustaining food webs and forest regeneration. Warmer and wetter nights may cause reduced flower production, via increased dark respiration rates or alteration in the reliability of flowering cue‐based processes. Additionally, more persistent cloud cover should reduce the amounts of solar irradiance, which could limit flower production.

    We tested whether interannual variation in flower production has changed in response to fluctuations in irradiance, rainfall, temperature, and relative humidity over 18 yrs in an everwet forest in Ecuador.

    Analyses of 184 plant species showed that flower production declined as nighttime temperature and relative humidity increased, suggesting that warmer nights and greater atmospheric water saturation negatively impacted reproduction. Species varied in their flowering responses to climatic variables but this variation was not explained by life form or phylogeny.

    Our results shed light on how plant communities will respond to climatic changes in this everwet region, in which the impacts of these changes have been poorly studied compared with more seasonal Neotropical areas.

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  2. Abstract

    Flowering and fruiting phenology have been infrequently studied in the ever‐wet hyperdiverse lowland forests of northwestern equatorial Amazonía. These Neotropical forests are typically called aseasonal with reference to climate because they are ever‐wet, and it is often assumed they are also aseasonal with respect to phenology. The physiological limits to plant reproduction imposed by water and light availability are difficult to disentangle in seasonal forests because these variables are often temporally correlated, and both are rarely studied together, challenging our understanding of their relative importance as drivers of reproduction. Here we report on the first long‐term study (18 years) of flowering and fruiting phenology in a diverse equatorial forest, Yasuní in eastern Ecuador, and the first to include a full suite of on‐site monthly climate data. Using twice monthly censuses of 200 traps and >1000 species, we determined whether reproduction at Yasuní is seasonal at the community and species levels and analyzed the relationships between environmental variables and phenology. We also tested the hypothesis that seasonality in phenology, if present, is driven primarily by irradiance. Both the community‐ and species‐level measures demonstrated strong reproductive seasonality at Yasuní. Flowering peaked in September–November and fruiting peaked in March–April, with a strong annual signal for both phenophases. Irradiance and rainfall were also highly seasonal, even though no month on average experienced drought (a month with <100 mm rainfall). Flowering was positively correlated with current or near‐current irradiance, supporting our hypothesis that the extra energy available during the period of peak irradiance drives the seasonality of flowering at Yasuní. As Yasuní is representative of lowland ever‐wet equatorial forests of northwestern Amazonía, we expect that reproductive phenology will be strongly seasonal throughout this region.

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  3. Abstract

    Understanding the mechanisms that promote the coexistence of hundreds of species over small areas in tropical forest remains a challenge. Many tropical tree species are presumed to be functionally equivalent shade tolerant species but exist on a continuum of performance trade‐offs between survival in shade and the ability to quickly grow in sunlight. These trade‐offs can promote coexistence by reducing fitness differences.

    Variation in plant functional traits related to resource acquisition is thought to predict variation in performance among species, perhaps explaining community assembly across habitats with gradients in resource availability. Many studies have found low predictive power, however, when linking trait measurements to species demographic rates.

    Seedlings face different challenges recruiting on the forest floor and may exhibit different traits and/or performance trade‐offs than older individuals face in the eventual adult niche. Seed mass is the typical proxy for seedling success, but species also differ in cotyledon strategy (reserve vs. photosynthetic) or other leaf, stem and root traits. These can cause species with the same average seed mass to have divergent performance in the same habitat.

    We combined long‐term studies of seedling dynamics with functional trait data collected at a standard life‐history stage in three diverse neotropical forests to ask whether variation in coordinated suites of traits predicts variation among species in demographic performance.

    Across hundreds of species in Ecuador, Panama and Puerto Rico, we found seedlings displayed correlated suites of leaf, stem, and root traits, which strongly correlated with seed mass and cotyledon strategy. Variation among species in seedling functional traits, seed mass, and cotyledon strategy were strong predictors of trade‐offs in seedling growth and survival. These results underscore the importance of matching the ontogenetic stage of the trait measurement to the stage of demographic dynamics.

    Our findings highlight the importance of cotyledon strategy in addition to seed mass as a key component of seed and seedling biology in tropical forests because of the contribution of carbon reserves in storage cotyledons to reducing mortality rates and explaining the growth‐survival trade‐off among species.

    Synthesis: With strikingly consistent patterns across three tropical forests, we find strong evidence for the promise of functional traits to provide mechanistic links between seedling form and demographic performance.

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  4. Abstract

    Phenology has long been hypothesized as an avenue for niche partitioning or interspecific facilitation, both promoting species coexistence. Tropical plant communities exhibit striking diversity in reproductive phenology, but many are also noted for large synchronous reproductive events. Here we study whether the phenology of seed fall in such communities is nonrandom, the temporal scales of phenological patterns, and ecological factors that drive reproductive phenology. We applied multivariate wavelet analysis to test for phenological synchrony versus compensatory dynamics (i.e., antisynchronous patterns where one species' decline is compensated by the rise of another) among species and across temporal scales. We used data from long‐term seed rain monitoring of hyperdiverse plant communities in the western Amazon. We found significant synchronous whole‐community phenology at multiple timescales, consistent with shared environmental responses or positive interactions among species. We also observed both compensatory and synchronous phenology within groups of species (confamilials) likely to share traits and seed dispersal mechanisms. Wind‐dispersed species exhibited significant synchrony at ~6‐month scales, suggesting these species might share phenological niches to match the seasonality of wind. Our results suggest that community phenology is shaped by shared environmental responses but that the diversity of tropical plant phenology may partly result from temporal niche partitioning. The scale‐specificity and time‐localized nature of community phenology patterns highlights the importance of multiple and shifting drivers of phenology.

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  5. Summary

    Vegetation demographic models (VDMs) endeavor to predict how global forests will respond to climate change. This requires simulating which trees, if any, are able to recruit under changing environmental conditions. We present a new recruitment scheme for VDMs in which functional‐type‐specific recruitment rates are sensitive to light, soil moisture and the productivity of reproductive trees.

    We evaluate the scheme by predicting tree recruitment for four tropical tree functional types under varying meteorology and canopy structure at Barro Colorado Island, Panama. We compare predictions to those of a current VDM, quantitative observations and ecological expectations.

    We find that the scheme improves the magnitude and rank order of recruitment rates among functional types and captures recruitment limitations in response to variable understory light, soil moisture and precipitation regimes.

    Our results indicate that adopting this framework will improve VDM capacity to predict functional‐type‐specific tree recruitment in response to climate change, thereby improving predictions of future forest distribution, composition and function.

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  6. Abstract

    Patterns of seed dispersal and seed mortality influence the spatial structure of plant communities and the local coexistence of competing species. Most seeds are dispersed in proximity to the parent tree, where mortality is also expected to be the highest, because of competition with siblings or the attraction of natural enemies. Whereas distance‐dependent mortality in the seed‐to‐seedling transition was often observed in tropical forests, few studies have attempted to estimate the shape of the survival‐distance curves, which determines whether the peak of seedling establishment occurs away from the parent tree (Janzen–Connell pattern) or if the peak attenuates but remains at the parent location (Hubbell pattern). In this study, we inferred the probability density of seed dispersal and two stages of seedling establishment (new recruits, and seedlings 20 cm or taller) with distance for 24 tree species present in the 50‐ha Forest Dynamics Plot of Barro Colorado Island, Panama. Using data from seed traps, seedling survey quadrats, and tree‐census records spanning the 1988–2014 period, we fit hierarchical Bayesian models including parameters for tree fecundity, the shape of the dispersal kernel, and overdispersion of seed or seedling counts. We combined predictions from multiple dispersal kernels to obtain more robust inferences. We find that Hubbell patterns are the most common and Janzen–Connell patterns are very rare among those species; that distance‐dependent mortality may be stronger in the seed stage, in the early recruit stage, or comparable in both; and that species with larger seeds experience less overall mortality and less distance‐dependent mortality. Finally, we describe how this modeling approach could be extended at a community scale to include less abundant species.

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  7. Abstract

    Forest community composition is the outcome of multiple forces, including those that increase taxonomic and functional divergence and those that promote convergence in traits. The mechanisms underlying these forces may not operate homogenously within communities; individuals of different species are never perfectly mixed, and thus, species tend to be surrounded and interact with different subsets of species. In fact, taxonomic and functional composition of neighborhoods of different focal species can be highly variable. Here, we examine whether mechanisms driving species‐level neighborhoods relate to intrinsic characteristics of focal species such as differences in life‐history and resource‐uptake strategies and in turn relate to species survival. We focus on two key characteristics: (1) seed mass, which defines a dominant axis of life‐history strategies related to stress tolerance, and (2) understory light preferences that sort species from light‐demanding pioneers to shade‐tolerant. We monitored seedling communities over 10 yr in Puerto Rico and calculated neighborhood trait dispersion in species‐level neighborhoods using seven functional traits. We examined whether species‐level characteristics, seed mass and preferred light conditions, influence patterns of functional dispersion in seedling neighborhoods using linear models. Then, we examined how species‐level functional neighborhoods impact seedling survival. We found that small‐ and large‐seeded species diverge in the type of functional neighborhoods they associate with. Large‐seeded species associate with neighbors that are more similar than expected in leaf economic traits, but more different than expected in seed mass and leaf area traits, while the opposite was found for small‐seeded species. This variation in species functional neighborhood was important in determining seedling survival. In sum, our results suggest that divergent and convergent forces do not operate homogenously over entire communities. Their relative role changes in space, and on a species‐by‐species basis, probably with a deterministic foundation linked to traits such as seed mass.

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  8. Abstract

    Species composition and community structure in Neotropical forests have been severely affected by increases in climate change and disturbance. Among the most conspicuous changes is the proliferation of lianas. These increases have affected not only the carbon storage capacity of forests but also tree dynamics by reducing tree growth and increasing mortality. Despite the importance of lianas in Neotropical forests, most of the studies on lianas have focused on adult stages, ignoring dynamics at the seedlings stage. Here, we asked whether observed increases in liana abundance are associated with a demographic advantage that emerges early in liana ontogeny and with decreased precipitation and increased disturbance. To test this, we compared patterns of growth and survival between liana seedlings and tree seedlings using a long‐term data set of seedling plots from a subtropical wet forest in Puerto Rico, USA. Then, we examined the effect of precipitation and land use history on these demographic variables. We found evidence for liana seedling survival advantage over trees, but no growth advantages. This survival advantage exhibited significant temporal variation linked with patterns of rainfall, as well as differences associated with land‐use history in the study area. Furthermore, we found that neighborhood density has a negative effect on liana survival and growth. Our results indicate that liana proliferation is likely related to a survival advantage that emerges in early stages and is influenced by climatic conditions and past disturbance. Predicted climatic changes in rainfall patterns, including more frequent and severe droughts, together with increases in disturbance, could have a significant effect on seedling tropical communities by favoring lianas.

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  9. Free, publicly-accessible full text available March 1, 2025
  10. Abstract

    Predicting the fate of tropical forests under a changing climate requires understanding species responses to climatic variability and extremes. Seedlings may be particularly vulnerable to climatic stress given low stored resources and undeveloped roots; they also portend the potential effects of climate change on future forest composition. Here we use data for ca. 50,000 tropical seedlings representing 25 woody species to assess (i) the effects of interannual variation in rainfall and solar radiation between 2007 and 2016 on seedling survival over 9 years in a subtropical forest; and (ii) how spatial heterogeneity in three environmental factors—soil moisture, understory light, and conspecific neighborhood density—modulate these responses. Community‐wide seedling survival was not sensitive to interannual rainfall variability but interspecific variation in these responses was large, overwhelming the average community response. In contrast, community‐wide responses to solar radiation were predominantly positive. Spatial heterogeneity in soil moisture and conspecific density were the predominant and most consistent drivers of seedling survival, with the majority of species exhibiting greater survival at low conspecific densities and positive or nonlinear responses to soil moisture. This environmental heterogeneity modulated impacts of rainfall and solar radiation. Negative conspecific effects were amplified during rainy years and at dry sites, whereas the positive effects of radiation on survival were more pronounced for seedlings existing at high understory light levels. These results demonstrate that environmental heterogeneity is not only the main driver of seedling survival in this forest but also plays a central role in buffering or exacerbating impacts of climate fluctuations on forest regeneration. Since seedlings represent a key bottleneck in the demographic cycle of trees, efforts to predict the long‐term effects of a changing climate on tropical forests must take into account this environmental heterogeneity and how its effects on regeneration dynamics play out in long‐term stand dynamics.

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