Plant dynamics in a tropical dry forest are strongly associated with climate and fire and weakly associated with stabilizing neighborhood effects

Studies comparing the relative strengths of multiple key drivers of forest dynamics are rare, but can inform both our fundamental understanding of plant communities as well as community-ecology theory. We studied the dynamics of a woody plant community in a southern Indian seasonally-dry tropical forest (SDTF) in relation to environmental factors (precipitation, temperature, fire, soil nutrients, and topography) and conspecific and heterospecific plant neighborhoods to identify which of these best predicted recruitment, survival and growth of dominant species over a 24-year study period. We also assessed the relative prevalence of density-independent and density-dependent responses in the community. Climate and fire were more important than plant neighborhoods and topographic and edaphic variables in explaining variation in plant performance. Recruitment, survival and growth were lower during periods of low precipitation and immediately following fires. Recruitment increased, and growth and survival largely decreased, with increasing temperatures. Smaller-sized individuals were disproportionately strongly affected by the vagaries of climate and fire. Conspecific negative density-dependence, a population-fluctuation stabilizing process, was relatively unimportant. Density-dependent effects decayed rapidly with distance from the focal plant (growth, survival) or quadrat (recruitment); positive density-dependence was frequently found in recruitment, possibly resulting from limited dispersal and/or facilitation. Woody plant dynamics in this SDTF appear to be responding largely to fluctuations in environmental conditions, particularly precipitation, temperature, and fire. In contrast to wetter forests, population-fluctuation stabilizing processes in this ecosystem appear to be relatively weak. Changes in climatic or fire regimes are likely to result in large compositional shifts in this SDTF.

Sandeep Pulla, Hebbalalu Suresh, Handanakere Dattaraja & Raman Sukumar