The role of small scale disturbances in shaping tropical forests is explored in new research by Simon Queenborough and colleagues published in BMC Ecology. Whilst large scale damage to forests, due to factors such as hurricanes or lighting, has a big impact on forest structure the effect of smaller disturbances can sometimes be overlooked.
This study uses data collected over a seven year period from a 25 hectare plot in the Yasuni National Park in eastern Ecuador. Previous work in this area had considered the role of falling palm leaves, which can weigh up to 15 kg and cause significant damage to young plants, on the community structure of these forests. The area around large fruiting palms showed reduced growth and lower survival for saplings, which seemed to confirm these previous findings. However this effect was not seen in the areas around equally large but immature non-fruiting palms where saplings would also be expected to suffer damage from falling leaves.
It appears that the presence of fruit contributes to the changes seen and points to the role of seed predators, such as peccaries, in shaping the forest structure. Whilst the effect of these animals may be small, when occurring over long time scales this can lead to directional changes in the community structure.
This article has been added to the thematic series ‘Forests: Looking to the Future’, a joint venture between BMC Ecology and Carbon Balance and Management. We hope you enjoy reading this collection of articles!