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Soil-based habitat partitioning in understorey palms in lower montane tropical forests

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Abstract Aim 

Dispersal assembly and niche assembly are two competing theories proposed to explain the maintenance of species diversity in tropical forests. Dispersal theory emphasizes the role of chance colonization events and distance-limited seed dispersal in explaining species abundance and distribution, whereas niche theory emphasizes differences among species in requirements for potentially limiting resources. Species distribution patterns in tropical forests often correlate with geology and topography, but tests of the relative importance of dispersal and niche partitioning have been hampered by an inadequate characterization of resource availability. The aim of this study was to explore how soil chemical and physical properties, climate, and geographic distance affect understorey palm communities in lower montane forests. Location 

Fortuna Forest Reserve, Chiriqui Province, and Palo Seco Forest Reserve, Bocas del Toro Province, in western Panama. Methods 

Understorey palms and soil nutrient concentrations were surveyed within 10 sites on different soil types across a 13-km transect. Variation in palm community composition was examined in relation to spatial and environmental variables. Results 

The 25 understorey palm species recorded in the study were non-randomly distributed among forests differing in soil nutrient availability. In support of dispersal theory, floristic similarity decreased predictably with increasing geographic distance. However, environmental and soil variables were also correlated with geographic distance. Floristic similarity was also highly associated with a subset of environmental variables. Variation in palm community similarity was most strongly correlated with inorganic nitrogen availability and cation concentration. A subset of soil variables had a stronger relationship with floristic similarity when geographic distance was controlled for than did geographic distance when differences in soils were controlled for. Main conclusions 

Both dispersal and niche processes affect palm species distribution patterns. Although spatially limited dispersal may influence species distribution patterns, soil-based habitat associations, particularly with respect to soil nitrogen, cation availability and aluminium concentrations, remain important factors influencing palm community composition at the mesoscale level in this tropical montane forest.

Keywords: Arecaceae; Panama; base cations; community assembly; floristic similarity; habitat associations; nitrogen

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: 1: Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, Apartado, Balboa, Ancón, Republic of Panama 2: Department of Plant Biology, University of Illinois, Urbana, IL, USA

Publication date: 2010-02-01

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