Gaps contribute tree diversity to a tropical floodplain forest.
Terborgh, J., Huanca Nuñez, N., Alvarez Loayza, P., & Cornejo Valverde, F.
Treefall gaps have long been a central feature of discussions about the maintenance of tree diversity in both temperate and tropical forests. Gaps expose parts of the forest floor to direct sunlight and create a distinctive microenvironment that can favor the recruitment into the community of so‐called gap pioneers. This traditional view enjoys strong empirical support, yet has been cast into doubt by a much‐cited article claiming that gaps are inherently “neutral” in their contribution to forest dynamics. We present concurrent data on seedfall and sapling recruitment into gaps vs. under a vertically structured canopy in an Amazonian floodplain forest in Peru. Our results strongly uphold the view of gaps as important generators of tree diversity. Our methods differed significantly from those employed by the neutralist group and can explain the contrasting outcomes. We found that seedfall into gaps differs both quantitatively and qualitatively from that falling under a multi‐tiered canopy, being greatly enriched in wind‐dispersed and autochorus species and sharply deficient in all types of zoochorous seeds. Despite a reduced input of zoochorous seeds, zoochorous species made up 79% of saplings recruiting into gaps, whereas wind‐dispersed species made up only 1%. Cohorts of saplings recruiting into gaps are less diverse than those recruiting under a closed canopy (Fisher's alpha = 40 vs. 100) and compositionally distinct, containing many light‐demanding species that rarely, if ever, recruit under shaded conditions. Saplings recruiting into gaps appear to represent a variable mix of shade‐tolerant survivors of the initiating treefall and sun‐demanding species that germinate subsequently.