Multiscale predictors of small tree survival across a heterogeneous tropical landscape

Eileen H. Helmer, Shannon Kay, Humfredo Marcano-Vega, Jennifer S. Powers, Tana E. Wood, Xiaolin Zhu, David Gwenzi, Thomas S. Ruzycki

Research output: Journal article publicationJournal articleAcademic researchpeer-review


Uncertainties about controls on tree mortality make forest responses to land-use and climate change difficult to predict. We tracked biomass of tree functional groups in tropical forest inventories across Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, and with random forests we ranked 86 potential predictors of small tree survival (young or mature stems 2.5–12.6 cm diameter at breast height). Forests span dry to cloud forests, range in age, geology and past land use and experienced severe drought and storms. When excluding species as a predictor, top predictors are tree crown ratio and height, two to three species traits and stand to regional factors reflecting local disturbance and the system state (widespread recovery, drought, hurricanes). Native species, and species with denser wood, taller maximum height, or medium typical height survive longer, but short trees and species survive hurricanes better. Trees survive longer in older stands and with less disturbed canopies, harsher geoclimates (dry, edaphically dry, e.g., serpentine substrates, and highest-elevation cloud forest), or in intervals removed from hurricanes. Satellite image phenology and bands, even from past decades, are top predictors, being sensitive to vegetation type and disturbance. Covariation between stand-level species traits and geoclimate, disturbance and neighboring species types may explain why most neighbor variables, including introduced vs. native species, had low or no importance, despite univariate correlations with survival. As forests recovered from a hurricane in 1998 and earlier deforestation, small trees of introduced species, which on average have lighter wood, died at twice the rate of natives. After hurricanes in 2017, the total biomass of trees 12.7 cm dbh of the introduced species Spathodea campanulata spiked, suggesting that more frequent hurricanes might perpetuate this light-wooded species commonness. If hurricane recovery favors light-wooded species while drought favors others, climate change influences on forest composition and ecosystem services may depend on the frequency and severity of extreme climate events.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere0280322
JournalPLoS ONE
Issue number3 March
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2023

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


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