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The herb community of a tropical forest in central Panama: dynamics and impact of mammalian herbivores

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Royo, Alejandro A.; Carson, Walter P.

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Mammals are hypothesized to either promote plant diversity by preventing competitive exclusion or limit diversity by reducing the abundance of sensitive plant species through their activities as browsers or disturbance agents. Previous studies of herbivore impacts in plant communities have focused on tree species and ignored the herbaceous community. In an experiment in mature-phase, tropical moist forest sites in central Panama, we studied the impact of excluding ground-dwelling mammals on the richness and abundance of herbs in 16, 30x45-m plots. Within each plot, we censused the herbaceous community in 28, 2x2-m subplots (1,792 m? total area sampled). We identified over 54 species of herbs averaging 1.21 ramets m-2 and covering approximately 4.25% of the forest floor. Excluding mammals for 5 years had no impact on overall species richness. Within exclosures, however, there was a significant two-fold increase in the density of rare species. Overall herbaceous density and percent cover did not differ between exclosures and adjacent control plots, although cover did increase over time. Mammalian exclusion significantly increased the total cover of three-dominant herb species, Pharus latifolius, Calathea inocephala, and Adiantum lucidum, but did not affect their density. This study represents one of the most extensive herbaceous community censuses conducted in tropical forests and is among a few that quantify herbaceous distribution and abundance in terms of both density and cover. Additionally, this work represents the first community level test of mammalian impacts on the herbaceous community in a tropical forest to date. Our results suggest that ground dwelling mammals do not play a key role in altering the relative abundance patterns of tropical herbs in the short term. Furthermore, our results contrast sharply with prior studies on similar temporal and spatial scales that demonstrate mammals strongly alter tree seedling composition and reduce seedling density. Thus, we question the pervasiveness of top-down control on tropical plant communities and the paradigm that defamation will inexorably lead to widespread, catastrophic shifts in plant communities.


Community structure; Diversity; Herbs; Mammals; Tropical forests


Royo, Alejandro A.; Carson, Walter P. 2005. The herb community of a tropical forest in central Panama: dynamics and impact of mammalian herbivores. Oecologia

Last updated on: January 22, 2007