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Plant pathogens drive density-dependent seedling mortality in a tropical tree


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One explanation for the extraordinary diversity of tropical forest trees is that density-dependent mortality from herbivores or pathogens puts locally rare species at an advantage. Density-dependent mortality of seeds and small seedlings is particularly intense in tropical forests, but its causes remain uncertain. Here, we show experimentally that pathogens from the Oomycota are associated with intense mortality in seedlings of a neotropical tree, Sebastiana longicuspis. Seedlings in untreated plots experienced eight times higher mortality compared with seedlings in plots treated with fungicide. Mortality was strongly density dependent: in fungicide-treated plots survival was unaffected by density, but survival in unsprayed plots was over three times higher at low density. Density-dependent mortality observed in a simultaneous, non-manipulative study was highly transient, suggesting that short-term observational studies may underestimate the intensity and form of pathogen-induced mortality. If such effects are widespread, plant pathogens may play a key role in maintaining and structuring tropical diversity.