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Understory plant communities show resistance to drought, hurricanes, and experimental warming in a wet tropical forest

August 4, 2022

Global climate change has led to rising temperatures and to more frequent and intense climatic events, such as storms and droughts. Changes in climate and disturbance regimes can have non-additive effects on plant communities and result in complicated legacies we have yet to understand. This is especially true for tropical forests, which play a significant role in regulating global climate. We used understory vegetation data from the Tropical Responses to Altered Climate Experiment (TRACE) in Puerto Rico to evaluate how plant communities responded to climate warming and disturbance. The TRACE understory vegetation was exposed to a severe drought (2015), 2 years of experimental warming (4°C above ambient in half of the plots, 2016–2017 and 2018–2019), and two major hurricanes (Irma and María, September 2017). Woody seedlings and saplings were censused yearly from 2015 to 2019, with an additional census in 2015 after the drought ended. We evaluated disturbance-driven changes in species richness, diversity, and composition across ontogeny. We then used Bayesian predictive trait modeling to assess how species responded to disturbance and how this might influence the functional structure of the plant community. Our results show decreased seedling richness after hurricane disturbance, as well as increased sapling richness and diversity after warming. We found a shift in species composition through time for both seedlings and saplings, yet the individual effects of each disturbance were not significant. At both ontogenetic stages, we observed about twice as many species responding to experimental warming as those responding to drought and hurricanes. Predicted changes in functional structure point to disturbance-driven functional shifts toward a mixture of fast-growing and drought-tolerant species. Our findings demonstrate that the tropical forest understory community is more resistant to climatic stressors than expected, especially at the sapling stage. However, early signs of changes in species composition suggest that, in a warming climate with frequent droughts and hurricanes, plant communities might shift over time toward fast-growing or drought-tolerant species.

Citation Information

Publication Year 2022
Title Understory plant communities show resistance to drought, hurricanes, and experimental warming in a wet tropical forest
DOI 10.3389/ffgc.2022.733967
Authors Aura M. Alonso-Rodríguez, Tana E. Wood, Jamarys Torres-Díaz, Molly A. Cavaleri, Sasha Reed, Benedicte Bachelot
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Frontiers in Forests and Global Change
Series Number
Index ID 70234236
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Southwest Biological Science Center