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Competition for water and rapid exclusion of an island endemic by a pantropical species in a tropical climate

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Water availability has major effects on community structure and dynamics globally, yet our understanding of competition for water in the tropics is limited. On the tropical Trindade Island, we explored competition for water in the context of the rapid exclusion of an endemic sedge, Cyperus atlanticus (Cyperaceae), by a pantropical, N-fixing shrub, Guilandina bonduc (Fabaceae). Guilandina patches were generally surrounded by rings of bare soil, and dead Cyperus halos commonly surrounded these bare zones. With geo-referenced measurements, we showed that Guilandina patches and bare soil zones rapidly expanded and replaced adjacent Cyperus populations. We found that soil water potentials were much lower in bare soils than soils under Guilandina or Cyperus, and that leaf water potentials of Cyperus plants were lower when co-occurring with Guilandina than when alone. When Guilandina was removed experimentally, Cyperus populations expanded and largely covered the bare soil zones. Our results indicate that when Guilandina establishes, its root systems expand beyond its canopies and these roots pull water from soils beneath Cyperus and kill it, creating bare zone halos, and then Guilandina expands and repeats the process. This scenario indicates rapid competitive exclusion and displacement of an endemic by a common pantropical species, at least in part through competition for water.

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The data that support the findings of this study are available from the corresponding author upon request.

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ASG thanks Marinha do Brasil for support, and Dr. Lucas Kruger and Leonardo A. Magalhães for help with statistics and Tácito B. Trindade for help in field surveys.


RMC thanks the National Science Foundation EPSCoR Cooperative Agreement OIA-1757351 for support. FB thanks the Conselho Nacional de Desenvolvimento Científico e Tecnológico (proposal # 405488/2012–2, 39/2012) for supporting this study and for his research grant (PQ # 312152/2018–3).

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Authors and Affiliations



FB and AG planned and designed the research. AG, BR, GP conducted fieldwork and performed experiments. AG, EB, FB, RC analyzed and interpreted the data. RC wrote the manuscript with input from AG and FB.

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Correspondence to Fabian Borghetti.

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The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

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Additional information

Communicated by Robert L Thomson.

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Supplementary file1 (DOCX 2473 KB)

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Gomes, A.S., Callaway, R.M., Rabelo, B.S. et al. Competition for water and rapid exclusion of an island endemic by a pantropical species in a tropical climate. Oecologia 201, 901–914 (2023).

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