Aims: Secondary forests are expanding rapidly in tropical regions and could play an important role in conserving native biodiversity and stabilising global climate. The recovery rate of plant communities in secondary forests varies considerably due to mechanisms associated with seed dispersal and recruitment dynamics. We explored these mechanisms along a chronosequence of tropical secondary forests in an agricultural landscape that was extensively cleared.
Location: We explored these mechanisms along a chronosequence of secondary forests in tropical Australia.
Methods: We used selected plant traits to characterise plant species and compared community composition between demographic stages (i.e. soil seedbank, understorey and overstorey) and forest age categories. We collected soil samples to assess seedbank composition and used quadrants and transects to assess understorey and overstorey plant community composition at each site.
Results: For all demographic stages, we found that young (4-12 years) and intermediate-aged forests (16-20 years) were dominated by early successional, small-seeded species and traits associated with disturbed forests. In old secondary forest (23-34 years) some traits associated with late successional stages were present (e.g. large seeds, trees). However, the traits and species composition of mature forests remained distinct from all secondary forests. Across the chronosequence, forest age and demographic stage were significant factors in discriminating species and trait composition between forest sites. We found clear plant community similarities within demographic stages, despite the forest age differences. This suggests stronger limitations to dispersal and recruitment between demographic stages than between forest ages.
Conclusions: Our results show that secondary forests in this region assemble slowly with dispersal and recruitment limitations constraining their recovery. Although a successional transition in species and plant traits composition along the chronosequence is clear, similarities to mature forests remain low. The slow recovery of late successional and large-seeded species in these secondary forests suggests that active restoration of such species may be necessary if we want to enhance the capacity of these forests to conserve native biodiversity.