Ontogenetic shifts in trait-mediated mechanisms of plant community assembly


  • Corresponding Editor: D. C. Laughlin.


Identifying the processes that maintain highly diverse plant communities remains a central goal in ecology. Species variation in growth and survival rates across ontogeny, represented by tree size classes and life history stage-specific niche partitioning, are potentially important mechanisms for promoting forest diversity. However, the role of ontogeny in mediating competitive dynamics and promoting functional diversity is not well understood, particular in high-diversity systems such as tropical forests. The interaction between interspecific functional trait variation and ontogenetic shifts in competitive dynamics may yield insights into the ecophysiological mechanisms promoting community diversity. We investigated how functional trait (seed size, maximum height, SLA, leaf N, and wood density) associations with growth, survival, and response to competing neighbors differ among seedlings and two size classes of trees in a subtropical rain forest in Puerto Rico. We used a hierarchical Bayes model of diameter growth and survival to infer trait relationships with ontogenetic change in competitive dynamics. Traits were more strongly associated with average growth and survival than with neighborhood interactions, and were highly consistent across ontogeny for most traits. The associations between trait values and tree responses to crowding by neighbors showed significant shifts as trees grew. Large trees exhibited greater growth as the difference in species trait values among neighbors increased, suggesting trait-associated niche partitioning was important for the largest size class. Our results identify potential axes of niche partitioning and performance-equalizing functional trade-offs across ontogeny, promoting species coexistence in this diverse forest community.