Vleminckx J., Bauman D., Demanet M., Hardy O. J., Doucet J. L., Drouet T.

[2020] Past human disturbances and soil fertility both influence the distribution of light-demanding tree species in a Central African tropical forest. Journal of Vegetation Science 31, 440–453

Questions: In vast areas of Central African forests, the upper canopy is presently dominated by light-demanding tree species. Here, we confront three hypotheses to explain this dominance: (a) these species have expanded their distribution because of widespread past slash-and-burn activities, as suggested by important charcoal amounts recorded in the soils of the region; (b) their abundance is rather explained by soil properties, as this guild establishes preferentially on favourable physico-chemical conditions for rapid growth; (c) soil properties have been substantially influenced by past human disturbances and those two effects cannot be disentangled.
Location: Pallisco-CIFM logging concession, southeastern Cameroon (300,000 ha).
Methods: We quantified soil charcoal abundance and measured ten soil variables at the basis of 60 target trees that belonged to a list of three long living pioneer lightdemanding (LLP) and four shade-bearer (SB) species. We identified all stems with a diameter at breast height (DBH) ≥ 20 cm within a distance of 15 m around each target tree. Species were characterised by their wood-specific gravity (WSG), which reflected their light requirement. Multiple regression models were used to quantify and test the relative effects of charcoal abundance and soil variables on the mean WSG of the 60 tree communities, as well as the abundance of three guilds: LLP, SB, and non-pioneer light demanders (NPLD).
Results: The mean WSG was the only response variable significantly explained by soil variables and charcoal abundance combined. It was significantly negatively associated with soil calcium and Mg content and with charcoal abundance, with soil and charcoal influencing the mean WSG independently.
Conclusion: Our study provides evidence that past human disturbances and soil fertility have independently promoted the establishment of light demanding species in western Central African forests, thereby shedding light on tree community assembly rules in these ecosystems which remain considerably understudied compared to the tropical forests of other continents.

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