Structure and composition of vegetation along an elevational gradient in Puerto Rico.
Question: What are the composition, conservation status, and structural and environmental characteristics of eight mature tropical forest plant communities that occur along an elevational gradient. Location: Northeastern Puerto Rico. Methods: We quantified the species composition, diversity, conservation status, and ecological attributes of eight mature tropical forest plant communities in replicated plots located to sample representative components of important forest types occurring along an elevational gradient. A suite of environmental and vegetation characteristics were sampled at each plot and summarized to characterize communities and analyse trends along the elevational gradient. Results: The set of communities included 374 species; 92% were native, 14% endemic, and 4% critical elements (locally endangered) to the island. All communities, occurring within a wide range of patch sizes and degree of conservation protection, showed a high percentage of native species (> 89% per plot). The lowland moist forest communities, occurring within a matrix of urbanization, agriculture, and disturbance, had the highest degree of invasion by exotics. Community descriptions were nested within a variety of hierarchies to facilitate extrapolation of community characteristics to larger ecosystem units. Basal area, above-ground biomass, canopy heights, and mean species richness peaked at mid elevations. Conclusions: It is significant that all of these forest communities continue to be dominated by native species while existing in a matrix of human and natural disturbance, species invasion, and forest regeneration from widespread agriculture. The lowland moist and dry forest types represent a minority of the protected forested areas in Puerto Rico, serve as unique genetic reservoirs, and should be protected.