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Abstract Aim To explore: (1) the relative influences of site conditions, especially moisture relations, on pathways and rates of monsoon rain forest seedling and sapling regeneration, especially of canopy dominants, in northern Australia; and (2) contrasts between regeneration syndromes of dominant woody taxa in savannas and monsoon rain forest. Location Four monsoon rain forest sites, representative of regional major habitat and vegetation types, in Kakadu National Park, northern Australia. Methods A decadal study involved: (1) initial assessment over 2.5 years to explore within-year variability in seed rain, dormant seed banks and seedling (< 50 cm height) dynamics; and (2) thereafter, monitoring of seedling and sapling (50 cm height to 5 cm d.b.h.) dynamics undertaken annually in the late dry season. On the basis of observations from this and other studies, regeneration syndromes of dominant monsoon rain forest taxa are contrasted with comparable information for dominant woody savanna taxa, Eucalyptus and Corymbia especially. Results Key observations from the monsoon rain forest regeneration dynamics study component are that: (1) peak seed rain inputs of rain forest taxa were observed in the wet season at perennially moist sites, whereas inputs at seasonally dry sites extended into, or peaked in, the dry season; (2) dormant soil seed banks of woody rain forest taxa were dominated by pioneer taxa, especially figs; (3) longevity of dormant seed banks of woody monsoon rain forest taxa, including figs, was expended within 3 years; (4) seedling recruitment of monsoon rain forest woody taxa was derived mostly from wet season seed rain with limited inputs from soil seed banks; (5) at all sites rain forest seedling mortality occurred mostly in the dry season; (6) rain forest seedling and sapling densities were consistently greater at moist sites; (7) recruitment from clonal reproduction was negligible, even following unplanned low intensity fires. Main conclusions By comparison with dominant savanna eucalypts, dominant monsoon rain forest taxa recruit substantially greater stocks of seedlings, but exhibit slower aerial growth and development of resprouting capacity in early years, lack lignotubers in mesic species, and lack capacity for clonal reproduction. The reliance on sexual as opposed to vegetative reproduction places monsoon rain forest taxa at significant disadvantage, especially slower growing species on seasonally dry sites, given annual–biennial fires in many north Australian savannas.