Changing drivers of species dominance during tropical forest succession



  1. Deterministic theories predict that local communities assemble from a regional species pool based on niche differences, thus by plant functional adaptations. We tested whether functional traits can also explain patterns in species dominance among the suite of co-occurring species.
  2. We predicted that along a gradient of secondary succession, the main driver of species dominance changes from environmental filtering in the relatively harsh (dry and hot) early successional conditions, towards increased competitive interactions and limiting similarity in later successional conditions (when light is limited).
  3. We used the Kurtosis (K) (a measure of peakedness) of the functional trait distribution of secondary forest communities in high-diversity tropical rain forest in Chiapas, Mexico. The forests ranged 1–25 years in age, and we used eight functional leaf traits related to a plants' carbon, water and heat balance. We calculated the functional trait distribution based on species dominance, where trait values were weighted by species' relative basal area, as well as based on species presence, all species counting once. ‘K-ratio’ was subsequently computed by dividing kurtosis based on species dominance by kurtosis based on species presence. If the K-ratio is high, the dominant species are functionally similar and we interpreted this as environmentally driven functional convergence allowing species to become dominant. If the K-ratio is small, dominant species are a functionally dissimilar subset of the species present and we interpreted this as competitively driven functional divergence allowing species to become dominant.
  4. We found that in early succession, dominant species represent a functionally narrow subset of species with similar traits, and in late succession, dominant species increasingly represent a wide subset of the species present. This trend was found for traits that reflect photosynthetic performance and light capture, and indicates increased competition for light with succession. No trend was found for traits that indicate defence against herbivory, suggesting no successional changes in herbivore pressure.
  5. Synthesis. This is one of the first studies showing that drivers of species dominance change along a gradient of secondary succession. During the early successional time window we evaluated, the importance of environmental filtering as a driving force fades away rapidly, and the importance of niche partitioning for species dominance starts to emerge.