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Influence of soil pathogens on early regeneration success of tropical trees varies between forest edge and interior

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Soil fungi are key mediators of negative density-dependent mortality in seeds and seedlings, and the ability to withstand pathogens in the shaded understory of closed-canopy forests could reinforce light gradient partitioning by tree species. For four species of tropical rainforest trees—two shade-tolerant and two shade-intolerant—we conducted a field experiment to examine the interactive effects of fungal pathogens, light, and seed density on germination and early seedling establishment. In a fully factorial design, seeds were sown into 1 m2 plots containing soil collected from underneath conspecific adult trees, with plots assigned to forest edge (high light) or shaded understory, high or low density, and fungicide or no fungicide application. We monitored total seed germination and final seedling survival over 15 weeks. Shade-intolerant species were strongly constrained by light; their seedlings survived only at the edge. Fungicide application significantly improved seedling emergence and/or survival for three of the four focal species. There were no significant interactions between fungicide and seed density, suggesting that pathogen spread with increased aggregation of seeds and seedlings did not contribute to pathogen-mediated mortality. Two species experienced significant edge-fungicide interactions, but fungicide effects in edge vs. interior forest varied with species and recruitment stage. Our results suggest that changes to plant-pathogen interactions could affect plant recruitment in human-impacted forests subject to fragmentation and edge-effects.

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The Garden Club of America Award in Tropical Botany, Harvard Arnold Arboretum Ashton award for Student Research, and Yale Tropical Resources Institute helped fund this research. We thank Mark Ashton and Robert Bagchi for comments on study design. Sachin Sridhara, Simon Queenborough, and two anonymous reviewers provided helpful feedback on the manuscript. We are immensely grateful to Kadamane Estate Company—Mr. Venkatachalam for kindly permitting us to use his property for research and Mr. Cariappa for graciously helping with logistics. Kavya Agarwal, Meghana R., and Arun Kumar helped with seed collection and processing. MK thanks Ajith Kumar for his support as friend and mentor. This study would not have been possible without the sincerity and enterprise of our field assistants, Netra Sharma and Suresh Roy.

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MK conceived and designed the experiments with inputs from LSC. MK performed the experiments, analyzed the data, and wrote the manuscript. LSC provided feedback on the analysis and writing.

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Correspondence to Meghna Krishnadas.

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Communicated by Katherine L. Gross.

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Krishnadas, M., Comita, L.S. Influence of soil pathogens on early regeneration success of tropical trees varies between forest edge and interior. Oecologia 186, 259–268 (2018).

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