Seed size, growth rate and gap microsite conditions as determinants of recruitment success for pioneer species

J. W. Dalling, S. P. Hubbell

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


1. We examined how seed size and seedling growth rate influence recruitment success of neotropical pioneer species. We investigated the soil seed bank, and followed seedlings from emergence and establishment to the sapling stage in artificially created gaps in secondary forest on the Barro Colorado Nature Monument, Panamá. 2. To simulate microsite variation within gaps, litter addition/removal and soil disturbance treatments were applied to seedling plots in a factorial design. 3. Seedling emergence was almost three-fold higher in litter-free plots than in control plots. 4. We found a negative relationship between seed mass and seed abundance in the soil, seed mass was positively correlated with seedling emergence success from the seed bank and with seedling survival through to the end of the first dry season. 5. In the 18 months following the first dry season we observed an uncoupling of seed mass from seedling performance. Seedling mortality was now a function of maximum relative growth rate, with higher mortality of fast-growing species attributable to herbivory, notably by shoot-borers. 6. We propose that a seed size-dependent trade-off between dispersal success (selecting for large seed number), and emergence-establishment success (selecting for large seed size) can explain the maintenance of wide variation in seed size among pioneer species. Secondarily, a trade-off between growth rate and susceptibility to herbivores acting at the post-establishment phase may contribute to observed differences in light requirements among pioneer species.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)557-568
Number of pages12
JournalJournal of Ecology
Issue number3
StatePublished - 2002
Externally publishedYes


  • Gap phase regeneration
  • Herbivory
  • Seedling emergence
  • Seedling establishment
  • Trade-off

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Ecology
  • Plant Science


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