Quantifying the effects of seed arrival and environmental conditions on tropical seedling community structure

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Though it is recognized that both stochastic and deterministic processes structure all communities, empirical assessments of their relative importance are rare, particularly within any single community. In this paper, we quantify the dynamic effects of dispersal assembly and niche assembly on the seedling layer in a diverse neotropical rain forest. The two theories make divergent predictions regarding the roles of seed arrival and environmental heterogeneity in generating community structure. Put simply, dispersal assembly posits that the stochasticity inherent to seed arrival structures communities, whereas niche assembly suggests that heterogeneity in post-dispersal environmental conditions is more important. We experimentally sowed 15,132 seeds of eight tree species at varying levels of density and diversity. Every six months we censused the seedlings that germinated and assessed the abiotic and biotic conditions of each plot. We assessed the density, diversity, and species composition of three nested subsets of the seedling layer: seedlings germinated from sown seeds, all seedlings germinated between July 2003 and 2004, and all woody seedlings. We partitioned the variance in density and diversity of each subset of the seedling layer into components representing seed-addition treatments and environmental conditions at 6- to 12-month intervals. Seed additions initially explained more variance in the density and diversity than did environmental heterogeneity for seven of eight sown species, but explained little variance in the density or diversity of the entire seedling layer. Species composition was better explained by seed-addition treatments than by environmental heterogeneity for all three subsets and in all time periods. Nevertheless, the variance in community structure explained by seed-addition treatments declined over the two years following germination, presaging shifts in the relative importance of dispersal assembly and niche assembly. Our study quantifies how dispersal assembly and niche assembly may vary among the components of an ecological community and shift dynamically through time.

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