1. Many forests experience periodic, large-scale disturbances, such as hurricanes and cyclones, which open the forest canopy, causing dramatic changes in understorey light conditions and seedling densities. Thus, in hurricane-impacted forests, large variations in abiotic and biotic conditions likely shape seedling dynamics, which in turn will contribute to patterns of forest recovery.
2. We monitored 13 836 seedlings of 82 tree and shrub species over 10 years following Hurricane Georges in 1998 in a subtropical, montane forest in Puerto Rico. We quantified changes in the biotic and abiotic environment of the understorey and linked seedling dynamics to changes in canopy openness and seedling density, and to spatial variation in soil type, topography and tree density.
3. Canopy openness was highest when first measured after Hurricane Georges and dropped significantly within c. 3 years, while seedling densities remained high for c. 5 years post-hurricane. When all species and census intervals were analysed together, generalized linear mixed effects models revealed that canopy openness, seedling and adult tree densities were significant drivers of seedling survival.
4. The relative importance of abiotic and biotic factors changed over time. Separate analyses for each census interval revealed that canopy openness was a significant predictor of survival only for the first census interval, with lower survival at the highest levels of canopy openness. The effect of conspecific seedling density was significant in all intervals except the first, and soil type only in the final census interval.
5. When grouping species into life-history guilds based on adult tree susceptibility to hurricane damage, we found clear differences among guilds in the effects of biotic and abiotic factors on seedling survival. Seedlings of hurricane-susceptible and intermediate guilds were more strongly influenced by canopy openness, while seedlings of the hurricane-resistant group were less affected by conspecific seedling density. Individual species-level analyses for 12 common species, however, showed considerable variation among species within guilds.
6. Synthesis. Our results suggest that hurricanes shape species composition by altering understorey conditions that differentially influence the success of seedlings. Thus, predicted increases in the intensity and frequency of hurricanes in the Caribbean will likely alter seedling dynamics and ultimately the species composition in hurricane-impacted forests.