Resistance of tropical seedlings to drought is mediated by neighbourhood diversity


Occasional periods of drought are typical of most tropical forests, but climate change is increasing drought frequency and intensity in many areas across the globe, threatening the structure and function of these ecosystems. The effects of intermittent drought on tropical tree communities remain poorly understood and the potential impacts of intensified drought under future climatic conditions are even less well known. The response of forests to altered precipitation will be determined by the tolerances of different species to reduced water availability and the interactions among plants that alleviate or exacerbate the effects of drought. Here, we report the response of experimental monocultures and mixtures of tropical trees to simulated drought, which reveals a fundamental shift in the nature of interactions among species. Weaker competition for water in diverse communities allowed seedlings to maintain growth under drought while more intense competition among conspecifics inhibited growth under the same conditions. These results show that reduced competition for water among species in mixtures mediates community resistance to drought. The delayed onset of competition for water among species in more diverse neighbourhoods during drought has potential implications for the coexistence of species in tropical forests and the resilience of these systems to climate change.

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Fig. 1: Experimental and planting design.
Fig. 2: Rainfall and soil water potential during the two years of the experiment.
Fig. 3: RGR for each neighbourhood and water treatment.
Fig. 4: Seedling water stress under rainfall and neighbourhood treatments.


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This research was supported by the University Research Priority Programme on Global Change and Biodiversity at the University of Zurich, the Southeast Asian Rainforest Research Partnership and the NERC Human Modified Tropical Forests programme (BALI project). M.J.O.B. was funded by a Swiss National Science Foundation Postdoc Mobility Grant (P300PA_167758). We greatly appreciate the hard work of staff at the Malua Field Station, especially site manager P. Ulok and R. Murus. We thank F. Osman and V. Saidi for their tireless work on this experiment and L. Turnbull for comments on the manuscript. This Article is number 19 of the Sabah Biodiversity Experiment.

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M.J.O.B. came up with the concept, designed and carried out the experiment, analysed the data and wrote the manuscript. G.R. and R.O. contributed to the logistics and implementation of the experiment in Sabah. A.H. contributed to the design, analysis and writing.

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Correspondence to Michael J. O’Brien.

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O’Brien, M.J., Reynolds, G., Ong, R. et al. Resistance of tropical seedlings to drought is mediated by neighbourhood diversity. Nat Ecol Evol 1, 1643–1648 (2017).

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