Effects of forest fragmentation on the seedling recruitment of a tropical herb: assessing seed vs. safe-site limitation
Studies simultaneously evaluating the importance of safe-site and seed limitation for plant establishment are rare, particularly in human-modified landscapes. We used spatially explicit neighborhood models together with data from 10 0.5-ha mapped census plots in a fragmented landscape spanning 1000 km2 to (1) evaluate the relative importance of seed production, dispersal, and safe-site limitation for the recruitment of the understory herb Heliconia acuminata; and (2) determine how these processes differ between fragments and continuous forests. Our analyses demonstrated a large degree of variation in seed production, dispersal, and establishment among and within the 10 study plots. Seed production limitation was strong but only at small spatial scales. Average dispersal distance was less than 4 m, leading to severe dispersal limitation at most sites. Overall, safe-site limitation was the most important constraint on seedling establishment. Fragmentation led to a more heterogeneous light environment with negative consequences for seedling establishment but had little effect on seed production or dispersal. These results suggest that the effects of fragmentation on abiotic processes may be more important than the disruption of biotic interactions in driving biodiversity loss in tropical forests, at least for some functional groups. These effects may be common when the matrix surrounding fragments contains enough tree cover to enable movement of dispersers and pollinators.