1. In heterogeneous environments, species segregate spatially in response to selective abiotic and biotic filters occurring throughout plant ontogeny. Ontogenetic conflicts in recruitment may lead to spatially discordant patterns of regeneration among microhabitats with different plant cover. In addition, species differing in seed size may be subjected to opposing ecological and evolutionary pressures throughout the life cycle of the plant.
2. We used a multi-stage demographic approach aimed at characterizing the main stage-specific probabilities of recruitment (seed survival, seed germination, seedling emergence and survival during the first 3 years of life) in two Mediterranean oak species coexisting at southern Spain. We calibrated linear and nonlinear likelihood models for each of these consecutive life history stages and calculated overall probabilities of recruitment along a wide range of plant cover and seed size variation.
3. Seed predation and seedling mortality over the dry season were the most limiting processes for the two studied oak species. However, species ranking diverged substantially through the life history stages considered in this study due to different ontogenetic trends among species.
4. At the intraspecific level, recruitment-driving processes during the seed and the seedling stages showed opposing tendencies along the explored range of plant cover and seed size. Thus, small-sized acorns and open areas were favoured for the seed stage, whereas large acorns and dense microhabitats did for the seedling stage.
5. The existence of opposing selective pressures on seed mass and their differential influence on the two studied oak species determined the occurrence of species-specific optimal seed sizes (small acorns for Quercus canariensis vs. acorns of large or intermediate size for Quercus suber).
6. The spatial patterns predicted by our overall-recruitment models provided some evidence of regeneration niche partitioning in the two coexisting oak species, supporting their current distribution patterns as saplings and adults at the study area.
7. Synthesis. We conclude that within- and among-species differences through plant ontogeny, arising from species differential response to microhabitat heterogeneity and seed size variation, could be of great importance for oak species niche segregation, driving stand dynamics and spatial pattern distribution along the landscape. The information provided by this study could be also applied to optimize management and restoration programmes since it has enabled us to identify the most favourable conditions and traits for recruitment in oak species that exhibit serious constraints for natural regeneration.