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Patterns in understory woody diversity and soil nitrogen across native- and non-native-urban tropical forests


Urban expansion is accelerating in the tropics, and may promote the spread of introduced plant species into urban-proximate forests. For example, soil disturbance can deplete the naturally high soil nitrogen pools in wet tropical soils, favoring introduced species with nitrogen-fixing capabilities. Also, forest fragmentation and canopy disturbance are likely to favor high-light species over shade-adapted rainforest species. We measured understory woody diversity, the abundance of introduced species, and soil nitrogen and carbon in urban, suburban, and rural secondary forests in Puerto Rico with canopies dominated by (1) native species, (2) introduced Fabaceae (potential nitrogen-fixers), and (3) introduced non-Fabaceae species. We hypothesized that forest stands with introduced Fabaceae in the canopy have higher soil nitrogen levels than stands with other introduced canopy species, and that this higher nitrogen is linked to increased native woody species diversity in the understory. We also predicted that more open canopies and smaller fragment sizes would be positively related with introduced species in the understory, and negatively related with total understory diversity. We found that stands with introduced Fabaceae in the canopy had significantly higher soil nitrogen levels than stands with other non-nitrogen fixing introduced species, and understory woody diversity in Fabaceae stands approached similar diversity levels as stands with native-dominated canopies. As predicted, aboveground stand structure and fragment size were also significantly associated with understory woody diversity across stands. These results suggest that introduced nitrogen-fixing trees may improve recruitment of native woody species in degraded tropical sites where native soil nitrogen is naturally high, particularly as Fabaceae stands mature and canopies close. © 2014 Elsevier B.V.

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