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Testing the Janzen-Connell mechanism: pathogens cause overcompensating density dependence in a tropical tree


Correspondence and present address: Department of Biological and Biomedical Science, Durham University, South Road, Durham DH1 3LE, UK.


Ecology Letters (2010)


The Janzen-Connell hypothesis is a leading explanation for plant-species diversity in tropical forests. It suggests that specialized natural enemies decrease offspring survival at high densities beneath parents, giving locally rarer species an advantage. This mechanism, in its original form, assumes that density dependence is overcompensating: mortality must be disproportionately high at the highest densities, with few offspring recruiting below their parents. We tested this assumption using parallel shadehouse and field density-series experiments on seedlings of a tropical tree, Pleradenophora longicuspis. We found strong, overcompensating mortality driven by fungal pathogens, causing 90% (shadehouse) or 100% (field) mortality within 4 weeks of germination, and generating a negative relationship between initial and final seedling densities. Fungicide treatment led to much lower, density-independent, mortality. Overcompensating mortality was extremely rapid, and could be missed without detailed monitoring. Such dynamics may prevent dead trees from being replaced by conspecifics, promoting coexistence as envisioned by the Janzen-Connell hypothesis.