• community structure;
  • density-dependence;
  • distance-dependence;
  • Janzen–Connell;
  • light availability;
  • plant–soil feedback;
  • soil microbes;
  • species coexistence;
  • tropical forests


1. The Janzen–Connell (J–C) Model proposes that host-specific enemies maintain high tree species diversity by reducing seedling performance near conspecific adults and promoting replacement by heterospecific seedlings. Support for this model often comes from decreased performance for a species at near versus far distances from conspecific adults. However, the relative success of conspecific versus heterospecific seedlings recruiting under a given tree species is a critical, but untested, component of the J–C Model.

2. In a shade-house experiment, we tested plant–soil feedbacks as a J–C mechanism in six tropical tree species. We assessed effects of conspecific versus heterospecific cultured soil extracts on seedling performance for each species, and we compared performance of conspecific versus heterospecific seedlings grown with soil extract cultured by a particular tree species. Additionally, we tested whether soil microbes were creating these plant–soil feedbacks and whether low light increased species vulnerability to pathogens.

3. Among 30 potential comparisons of survival and mass for seedlings grown in conspecific versus heterospecific soil extracts, survival decreased in seven and increased in two, whereas mass decreased in 13 and increased in 1. To integrate survival and growth, we also examined seedling performance [(mean total mass × mean survival time)/(days of experiment)], which was lower in 16 and higher in 2 of 30 comparisons between seedlings grown with soil extract cultured by conspecific versus heterospecific individuals. Based on performance within a soil extract, conspecific seedlings were disadvantaged in 15 and favoured in 7 of 30 cases relative to heterospecific seedlings.

4. Species pairwise interactions of soil modification and seedling performance occurred regardless of sterilization, suggesting chemical mediation. Microbes lacked host-specificity and reduced performance regardless of extract source and irradiance.

5.Synthesis. These results, along with parallel research in temperate forests, suggest that plant–soil feedbacks are an important component of seedling dynamics in both ecosystems. However, negative conspecific feedbacks were more prevalent in tropical than temperate species. Thus, negative plant–soil feedbacks appear to facilitate species coexistence via negative distance-dependent processes in tropical but not temperate forests, but the feedbacks were mediated through chemical effects rather than through natural enemies as expected under the J–C Model.