Drivers of lowland rain forest community assembly, species diversity and forest structure on islands in the tropical South Pacific


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1. Testing the comparative strength and influence of age and area of islands, proximity of source propagules and disturbances on community assembly, species diversity and vegetation structure has proved difficult at large scales. The little-studied rain forests in the Tropical South Pacific (TSP) provide a unique study area to investigate determinants of community dynamics, with islands varying in age, isolation, area and cyclone frequency. We tested the effects of biogeographical factors and cyclone frequency on the species composition, species diversity and forest structure of old-growth rain forest using 1-ha inventory plots on 12 islands between New Guinea and the Solomon Islands.

2. As predicted by the General Dynamic Model of Oceanic Island Biogeography, the biogeographical variables of archipelago age and island area are the most important factors affecting species richness and diversity, with older and larger islands having higher richness and diversity. There is no significant effect of cyclone frequency on species diversity.

3. The theory that diversity drives endemism is not supported in this system as endemism is not correlated with species diversity. Instead, age and isolation of an island best explain patterns of endemism, with the latter suggesting dispersal limitations between archipelagos.

4. Proximity to source area influences species composition of lowland tropical rain forests in the TSP, which is also supported by a strong correlation between geographic distance and floristic similarity. Vector-fitting onto non-metric multidimensional scaling suggests that archipelago age and cyclone frequency may, in addition to proximity to source area, influence species composition. This implies that a species’ tolerance to cyclones affects its abundance at different cyclone frequencies.

5.Synthesis. Both biogeographical variables (island area and isolation) and cyclone frequency appear to affect community assembly in lowland rain forests in the TSP. While species are hence not ecologically equivalent, interspecific ecological differences do not seem to affect the overall patterns of species diversity, which are mostly determined by biogeographical variables, as predicted by the neutral theory.