, Volume 141, Issue 1, pp 114-120
Date: 20 Jul 2004

El Niño droughts and their effects on tree species composition and diversity in tropical rain forests

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Abstract

In this study I investigated the effects of the extreme, 1997/98 El Niño related drought on tree mortality and understorey light conditions of logged and unlogged tropical rain forest in the Indonesian province of East Kalimantan (Borneo). My objectives were to test (1) whether drought had a significant effect on tree mortality and understorey light conditions, (2) whether this effect was greater in logged than in undisturbed forest, (3) if the expected change in tree mortality and light conditions had an effect on Macaranga pioneer seedling and sapling densities, and (4) which (a)biotic factors influenced tree mortality during the drought. The 1997/1998 drought led to an additional tree mortality of 11.2, 18.1, and 22.7% in undisturbed, old logged and recently logged forest, respectively. Mortality was highest in logged forests, due to extremely high mortality of pioneer Macaranga trees (65.4%). Canopy openness was significantly higher during the drought than during the non-drought year (6.0, 8.6 and 10.4 vs 3.7, 3.8 and 3.7 in undisturbed, old logged and recently logged forest, respectively) and was positively correlated with the number of dead standing trees. The increase in light in the understorey was accompanied by a 30 to 300-fold increase in pioneer Macaranga seedling densities. Factors affecting tree mortality during drought were (1) tree species successional status, (2) tree size, and (3) tree location with respect to soil moisture. Tree density and basal area per surface unit had no influence on tree mortality during drought. The results of this study show that extreme droughts, such as those associated with El Niño events, can affect the tree species composition and diversity of tropical forests in two ways: (1) by disproportionate mortality of certain tree species groups and tree size classes, and (2) by changing the light environment in the forest understorey, thereby affecting the recruitment and growth conditions of small and immature trees.