Cascading Effects of Canopy Opening and Debris Deposition from a Large-Scale Hurricane Experiment in a Tropical Rain Forest
Intense hurricanes disturb many tropical forests, but the key mechanisms driving post-hurricane forest changes are not fully understood. In Puerto Rico, we used a replicated factorial experiment to determine the mechanisms of forest change associated with canopy openness and organic matter (debris) addition. Cascading effects from canopy openness accounted for most of the shifts in the forest biota and biotic processes, which included increased plant recruitment and richness, as well as the decreased abundance and diversity of several animal groups. Canopy opening decreased litterfall and litter moisture, thereby inhibiting lignin-degrading fungi, which slowed decomposition. Debris addition temporarily increased tree basal area. Elevated soil solution nitrate was a dominant response after past hurricanes; this effect only occurred in our experiment with simultaneous canopy-opening and debris treatments. Although debris is an important carbon and nutrient source, short-term responses to cyclonic storms appear to be largely driven by canopy opening.