Interspecific differences in relative fitness can cause local dominance by a single species. However, stabilizing interspecific niche differences can promote local diversity. Understanding these mechanisms requires that we simultaneously quantify their effects on demography and link these effects to community dynamics. Successional forests are ideal systems for testing assembly theory because they exhibit rapid community assembly. Here, we leverage functional trait and long-term demographic data to build spatially explicit models of successional community dynamics of lowland rainforests in Costa Rica. First, we ask what the effects and relative importance of four trait-mediated community assembly processes are on tree survival, a major component of fitness. We model trait correlations with relative fitness differences that are both density-independent and -dependent in addition to trait correlations with stabilizing niche differences. Second, we ask how the relative importance of these trait-mediated processes relates to successional changes in functional diversity. Tree dynamics were more strongly influenced by trait-related interspecific variation in average survival than trait-related responses to neighbors, with wood specific gravity (WSG) positively correlated with greater survival. Our findings also suggest that competition was mediated by stabilizing niche differences associated with specific leaf area (SLA) and leaf dry matter content (LDMC). These drivers of individual-level survival were reflected in successional shifts to higher SLA and LDMC diversity but lower WSG diversity. Our study makes significant advances to identifying the links between individual tree performance, species functional traits, andmechanisms of tropical forest succession.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences / Vol. 111, No. 15, pp.5616-5621