Kupers, S J; Engelbrecht, BMJ; Hernandez, A; Wright, SJ; Wirth, C; Rüger, N: Growth responses to soil water potential indirectly shape local species distributions of tropical forest seedlings, Journal of Ecology, 107, 860-874 (2019)
Local tree species distributions in tropical forests correlate strongly with soil water availability. However, it is unclear how species distributions are shaped by demographic responses to soil water availability. Specifically, it remains unknown how growth affects species distributions along water availability gradients rela- tive to mortality.
We quantified spatial variation in dry season soil water potential (SWP) in the moist tropical forest on Barro Colorado Island, Panama, and used a hierarchical Bayesian approach to evaluate relationships between demographic responses of naturally regenerating seedlings to SWP (RGRs and first-year mortality) and spe- cies distributions along the SWP gradient for 62 species. We also tested whether species that were more abundant at the wet or dry end of the gradient performed better (a) at their “home end” of the gradient (“best at home” hypothesis) and (b) “at home” compared to co-occurring species (“home advantage” hypothesis).
Four and five species responded significantly to SWP in terms of growth or mor- tality respectively. Growth (but not mortality) responses were positively related to species distributions along the SWP gradient; species with a more positive (negative) growth response to SWP were more abundant at higher (lower) SWP, that is, at wetter (drier) sites. In addition, wet distributed species grew faster on the wet end of the SWP gradient than on the dry end (“best at home”) and grew faster on the wet end than dry distributed species (“home advantage”). Mortality rates declined with seedling size for all species. Thus, seedling growth responses to SWP indirectly shaped local species distributions by influencing seedling size and thereby mortality risk.
4. Synthesis. By demonstrating how growth responses to spatial variation in soil water availability affect species distributions, we identified a demographic pro- cess underlying niche differentiation on hydrological gradients in tropical forests. Recognizing the role of these growth responses in shaping species distributions should improve the understanding of tropical forest composition and diversity along rainfall gradients and with climate change.