Soil-based habitat partitioning in understorey palms in lower montane tropical forests

Kelly M. Andersen, Benjamin L. Turner, James W. Dalling

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Aim Dispersal assembly and niche assembly are two competing theories proposed to explain the maintenance of species diversity in tropical forests. Dispersal theory emphasizes the role of chance colonization events and distance-limited seed dispersal in explaining species abundance and distribution, whereas niche theory emphasizes differences among species in requirements for potentially limiting resources. Species distribution patterns in tropical forests often correlate with geology and topography, but tests of the relative importance of dispersal and niche partitioning have been hampered by an inadequate characterization of resource availability. The aim of this study was to explore how soil chemical and physical properties, climate, and geographic distance affect understorey palm communities in lower montane forests. Location Fortuna Forest Reserve, Chiriqui Province, and Palo Seco Forest Reserve, Bocas del Toro Province, in western Panama. Methods Understorey palms and soil nutrient concentrations were surveyed within 10 sites on different soil types across a 13-km transect. Variation in palm community composition was examined in relation to spatial and environmental variables. Results The 25 understorey palm species recorded in the study were non-randomly distributed among forests differing in soil nutrient availability. In support of dispersal theory, floristic similarity decreased predictably with increasing geographic distance. However, environmental and soil variables were also correlated with geographic distance. Floristic similarity was also highly associated with a subset of environmental variables. Variation in palm community similarity was most strongly correlated with inorganic nitrogen availability and cation concentration. A subset of soil variables had a stronger relationship with floristic similarity when geographic distance was controlled for than did geographic distance when differences in soils were controlled for. Main conclusions Both dispersal and niche processes affect palm species distribution patterns. Although spatially limited dispersal may influence species distribution patterns, soil-based habitat associations, particularly with respect to soil nitrogen, cation availability and aluminium concentrations, remain important factors influencing palm community composition at the mesoscale level in this tropical montane forest.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)278-292
Number of pages15
JournalJournal of Biogeography
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 2010


  • Arecaceae
  • Base cations
  • Community assembly
  • Floristic similarity
  • Habitat associations
  • Nitrogen
  • Panama

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Ecology


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