Forest age and isolation affect the rate of recovery of plant species diversity and community composition in secondary rain forests in tropical Australia

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Abstract

Questions

Which factors affect the diversity and species composition of tropical secondary rain forests in a region with little information regarding their contribution to global biodiversity?

Questions

Can older secondary forests approach the diversity and composition of mature forests following 100 yr of pasture use?

Location

Tropical secondary rain forest, northeast Australia.

Methods

We identified trees, shrubs and vines ≥2.5 cm DBH in a chronosequence comprising 33 sites, aged 3–60 yr since the formation of closed canopy (9–69 yr since pasture abandonment) and compared them with eight sites in nearby mature forest remnants.

Results

Species richness and community composition were strongly influenced by secondary forest age but did not attain values of mature forest. Sites in close proximity to mature forests had higher plant richness, whereas low soil fertility appeared to depress species recruitment. Thus, multiple factors operated in secondary forest community assembly. Unusual tree community patterns that suggest accelerated or slowed successional trajectories were observed at several sites.

Conclusions

Secondary forests in our study region contained important plant diversity for conservation, particularly in older sites, however, even the oldest secondary forests (60 yr) did not converge with the species composition and diversity of mature forests. The protection of mature forest tracts and remnants must be a priority if we are to maintain high levels of plant diversity in tropical landscapes, conserve rare species and facilitate the recruitment of plant species in recovering forests.

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