Incomplete recovery of tree community composition and rare species after 120 years of tropical forest succession in Panama



Elsy AD, Pfeifer M, Jones IL, DeWalt SJ, Lopez OR & Dent DH (2023) Incomplete recovery of tree community composition and rare species after 120 years of tropical forest succession in Panama. Biotropica.

Determining how fully tropical forests regenerating on abandoned land recover characteristics of old-growth forests is increasingly important for understanding their role in conserving rare species and maintaining ecosystem services. Despite this, our understanding of forest structure and community composition recovery throughout succession is incomplete, as many tropical chronosequences do not extend beyond the first 50 years of succession. Here, we examined trajectories of forest recovery across eight 1-hectare plots in middle and later stages of forest succession (40–120 years) and five 1-hectare old-growth plots, in the Barro Colorado Nature Monument (BCNM), Panama. We first verified that forest age had a greater effect than edaphic or topographic variation on forest structure, diversity and composition and then corroborated results from smaller plots censused 20 years previously. Tree species diversity (but not species richness) and forest structure had fully recovered to old-growth levels by 40 and 90 years, respectively. However, rare species were missing, and old-growth specialists were in low abundance, in the mid- and late secondary forest plots, leading to incomplete recovery of species composition even by 120 years into succession. We also found evidence that dominance early in succession by a long-lived pioneer led to altered forest structure and delayed recovery of species diversity and composition well past a century after land abandonment. Our results illustrate the critical importance of old-growth and old secondary forests for biodiversity conservation, given that recovery of community composition may take several centuries, particularly when a long-lived pioneer dominates in early succession.

alternate successional pathways; chronosequence; forest structure; Gustavia superba; rarity; species diversity


StatusIn Press
Publication date online31/10/2023
Date accepted by journal20/09/2023

People (2)


Mr Alexander Elsy

Mr Alexander Elsy

PhD Researcher, Biological and Environmental Sciences

Dr Isabel Jones

Dr Isabel Jones

Senior Research Fellow, Biological and Environmental Sciences

Projects (1)