Impact of forest fragmentation on understory plant species richness in Amazonia

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Conservation Biology


Forest fragmentation in the tropics severely affects large trees, but its effect on other life stages and plant life forms is poorly understood. In Central Amazonia, 9 to 19 years after fragmentation, we recorded species richness and net seedling recruitment rate in forest fragments of 1, 10, and 100 ha and in continuous forest. In 1991 all seedlings 5-100 cm tall within permanent 1-m2 plots in fragments and continuous forest were counted and grouped into tree, liana, palm, and herb life-form classes. In 1993 we manually removed all seedlings that were <1 m tall from the permanent plots. Six years and 5 months later ( 1999 ), all new seedlings recruited into the plots were counted, grouped into different life forms, and classified into distinct morphospecies. The species richness of recruited tree, liana, herb, and palm seedlings was lower in forest fragments than in continuous forest, with the 1-ha fragment having the poorest species richness. The total number of recruited individuals was 40% less than that previously present for all life forms, except lianas. Liana recruitment was 7% to 500% higher than the original abundance in the forest fragments and continuous forest. In general, species similarity was higher among fragments than between fragments and continuous forest, with the 1-ha fragment being less similar. Species rank/abundance curves showed that continuous forest species in all life forms tended to disappear in forest fragments, whereas common species in forest fragments were absent from continuous forest. Overall, our results suggest that the life-form composition and structure of the regenerative plant pool in fragments were shifting toward a species-poor seedling community. Losses of understory species diversity, but especially of tree seedlings, threaten the maintenance of rainforest biodiversity and compromise future forest regeneration.

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