Effects of mammalian herbivory and seasonal drought were studied for Virola surinamensis (Myristicaceae) juveniles on Barro Colorado Island, Panama. Seedlings were planted at three months of age and the juveniles were monitored for two years; Treatments included: intact plants protected from mammals by cages, defoliated plants similarly protected, and unprotected plants, each planted in treefall gaps, on gap edges, and in the shaded understorey.
Juveniles planted in treefall gaps survived seasonal drought far better than those planted on gap edges or in shaded understorey. Two years after establishment, juveniles protected from mammalian herbivory showed a 78% survival in gaps (mean 6.8% skylight), 50% survival on gap edges (mean 3.0% skylight), and 33% survival in shaded understorey (1.4% skylight). This advantage was due to accelerated growth in gaps. Juveniles in gaps increased 616% in height, 1075% in leaf number, and 1800% in total leaf area. Comparable numbers in edges were 247%, 378% and 690%; in understorey 33%, 222% and 289%. Accelerated growth in gaps permitted yearlings to survive drought that killed suppressed yearlings in understorey. Mean light differentials as small as 0.6% and 0.3% skylight significantly influenced survival on edges and in shaded understorey, respectively.
Mammalian herbivory killed juveniles directly, and defoliation by mammals strongly accentuated drought mortality by suppressing root development. Natural defoliation was not attributable to gap conditions. Demographic projections from experimental data suggest that mammalian herbivory kills at least 48% of the juveniles of this species over two years, and contributes to the death of 32% more that actually die of drought stress. These projections suggest that 14% of the juveniles of this species die of drought mortality, independent of herbivory, during the first two years. Herbivory most strongly affects plants < 0.5 m in height, and is a continuing source of mortality among suppressed juveniles in the understorey. Steep slopes and large seed size each enhanced juvenile growth and survival in the intermediate conditions of gap edges, but not under the extreme conditions of gaps or shaded understorey.
The context of establishment determines the ‘shade tolerance’ of this conspicuous canopy tree. Without serious mammalian herbivory or extreme dry seasons, V. surinamensis can easily recruit as a shade tolerant plant in the understorey. Under present conditions on Barro Colorado Island, it cannot. Persistence involves both the chances of arrival in different microhabitats, and survival therein. Projections that include both the forest area represented by gaps, gap edges, and understorey and the experimental results from this study indicate that juvenile V. surinamensis can survive for two years in gaps, edges, and understorey, but that the higher proportions of vigorous individuals survive in edges, gaps and understorey, respectively.