Variability within the 10-Year Pollen Rain of a Seasonal Neotropical Forest and Its Implications for Paleoenvironmental and Phenological Research

Derek S. Haselhorst, J. Enrique Moreno, Surangi W. Punyasena

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Tropical paleoecologists use a combination of mud-water interface and modern pollen rain samples (local samples of airborne pollen) to interpret compositional changes within fossil pollen records. Taxonomic similarities between the composition of modern assemblages and fossil samples are the basis of reconstructing paleoclimates and paleoenvironments. Surface sediment samples reflect a time-averaged accumulation of pollen spanning several years or more. Due to experimental constraints, modern pollen rain samples are generally collected over shorter timeframes (1-3 years) and are therefore less likely to capture the full range of natural variability in pollen rain composition and abundance. This potentially biases paleoenvironmental interpretations based on modern pollen rain transfer functions. To determine the degree to which short-term environmental change affects the composition of the aerial pollen flux of Neotropical forests, we sampled ten years of the seasonal pollen rain from Barro Colorado Island, Panama and compared it to climatic and environmental data over the same ten-year span. We establish that the pollen rain effectively captured the strong seasonality and stratification of pollen flow within the forest canopy and that individual taxa had variable sensitivity to seasonal and annual changes in environmental conditions, manifested as changes in pollen productivity. We conclude that modern pollen rain samples capture the reproductive response of moist tropical plants to short-term environmental change, but that consequently, pollen rain-based calibrations need to include longer sampling periods (≥7 years) to reflect the full range of natural variability in the pollen output of a forest and simulate the time-averaging present in sediment samples. Our results also demonstrate that over the long-term, pollen traps placed in the forest understory are representative samples of the pollen output of both canopy and understory vegetation. Aerial pollen traps, therefore, also represent an underutilized means of monitoring the pollen productivity and reproductive behavior of moist tropical forests.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere53485
JournalPloS one
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 8 2013

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)
  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)
  • General


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