Disturbance is an important process structuring ecosystems worldwide and has long been thought to be a significant driver of diversity and dynamics. In forests, most studies of disturbance have focused on large-scale disturbance such as hurricanes or tree-falls. However, smaller sub-canopy disturbances could also have significant impacts on community structure. One such sub-canopy disturbance in tropical forests is abscising leaves of large arborescent palm (Arececeae) trees. These leaves can weigh up to 15 kg and cause physical damage and mortality to juvenile plants. Previous studies examining this question suffered from the use of static data at small spatial scales. Here we use data from a large permanent forest plot combined with dynamic data on the survival and growth of > 66,000 individuals over a seven-year period to address whether falling palm fronds do impact neighboring seedling and sapling communities, or whether there is an interaction between the palms and peccaries rooting for fallen palm fruit in the same area as falling leaves. We tested the wider generalisation of these hypotheses by comparing seedling and sapling survival under fruiting and non-fruiting trees in another family, the Myristicaceae.
We found a spatially-restricted but significant effect of large arborescent fruiting palms on the spatial structure, population dynamics and species diversity of neighbouring sapling and seedling communities. However, these effects were not found around slightly smaller non-fruiting palm trees, suggesting it is seed predators such as peccaries rather than falling leaves that impact on the communities around palm trees. Conversely, this hypothesis was not supported in data from other edible species, such as those in the family Myristicaceae.
Given the abundance of arborescent palm trees in Amazonian forests, it is reasonable to conclude that their presence does have a significant, if spatially-restricted, impact on juvenile plants, most likely on the survival and growth of seedlings and saplings damaged by foraging peccaries. Given the abundance of fruit produced by each palm, the widespread effects of these small-scale disturbances appear, over long time-scales, to cause directional changes in community structure at larger scales.