Conspecific and phylogenetic density-dependent survival differs across life stages in a tropical forest

Ecologists have long recognized that plant performance is affected by the density and composition of neighbouring individuals. With the advent of highly resolved species-level phylogenies, it has become possible to test whether such density-dependent neighbourhood interactions are also phylogenetically dependent. Most studies of density dependence have focused on a single life stage; however, the relative importance of different neighbourhood interactions may shift over the lifetime of an individual.

We examined effects of conspecific neighbour density, heterospecific neighbour density and average phylogenetic relatedness of heterospecific neighbours on the survival of seedlings, saplings, juveniles and adult trees of 29 focal tree species using long-term, spatially explicit forest dynamics data and a highly resolved DNA barcode phylogeny from the tropical forest of Barro Colorado Island (BCI), Panama.

Our results show a decline in the strength of conspecific negative density dependence across life stages: strong negative conspecific neighbour effects at early life stages gave way to weak positive conspecific neighbour effects for adult trees. In contrast, the effect of heterospecific neighbour density on survival showed no clear trend with life stage.

We found evidence of phylogenetic density dependence in the BCI forest, with a significant negative impact of neighbourhood relatedness on focal tree survival, but only for later life stages. In contrast to studies from other tropical forests, neighbourhood relatedness had a significant positive effect on seedling survival.

Furthermore, we found that focal species varied much more widely in their sensitivity to conspecific neighbour density than in their reactions to heterospecific neighbour density or phylogenetic relatedness.

Synthesis. Overall, our results demonstrate that both conspecific density dependence and phylogenetic density dependence influence tropical tree survival, but that their relative importance varies with life stage and among species. Our study highlights the need to incorporate multiple life stages and multiple species when assessing the factors contributing to individual survival and species coexistence for long-lived organisms.

Zhu, Yan Comita, Liza Hubbell, Stephen Ma, Keping
Journal of Ecology