Herbivores equalize the seedling height growth of three dominant tree species in an African tropical rain forest

Norghauer, Julian Martin; Newbery, David McClintock (2013). Herbivores equalize the seedling height growth of three dominant tree species in an African tropical rain forest. Forest Ecology and Management, 310, pp. 555-566. Elsevier 10.1016/j.foreco.2013.08.029

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Determining the impact of insect herbivores on forest tree seedlings and saplings is difficult without experimentation in the field. Moreover, this impact may be heterogeneous in time and space because of seasonal rainfall and canopy disturbances, or ‘gaps’, which can influence both insect abundance and plant performance. In this study we used fine netting to individually protect seedlings of Microberlinia bisulcata, Tetraberlinia bifoliolata and Tetraberlinia korupensis trees (Fabaceae = Leguminosae) from insects in 41 paired gap-understorey locations across 80 ha of primary rain forest (Korup, Cameroon).

For all species, growth in height and leaf numbers was negligible in the understorey, where M. bisulcata had the lowest survival after c. 2 years. In gaps, however, all species responded positively with pronounced above-ground growth across seasons. When exposed to herbivores their seedling height growth was similar, but in the absence of herbivores, M. bisulcata significantly outgrew both Tetraberlinia species and matched their leaf numbers. This result suggests that insect herbivores might play an important role in maintaining species coexistence by mitigating sapling abundance of the more palatable M. bisulcata, which in gaps was eaten the most severely. The higher ratio in static leaf damage of control-to-caged M. bisulcata seedlings in gaps than understorey locations was consistent with the Plant Vigour Hypothesis. This result, however, did not apply to either Tetraberlinia species. For M. bisulcata and T. korupensis, but not T. bifoliolata (the most shade-tolerant species), caging improved relative seedling survival in the understory locations compared to gaps, providing restricted support for the Limiting Resource Model. Approximately 2.25 years after treatments were removed, the caged seedlings were taller and had more leaves than controls in all three species, and the effect remained strongest for M. bisulcata.

We conclude that in this community the impact of leaf herbivory on seedling growth in gaps is strong for the dominant M. bisulcata, which coupled to a very low shade-tolerance contributes to limiting its regeneration. However, because gaps are common to most forests, insect herbivores may be having impacts upon functionally similar tree species that are also characterized by low sapling recruitment much more widely than currently appreciated. An implication for the restoration and management of M. bisulcata populations in forests outside of Korup is that physical protection from herbivores of new seedlings where the canopy is opened by gaps, or by harvesting, should substantially increase its subcanopy regeneration, and thus, too, its opportunities for adult recruitment.

Item Type:

Journal Article (Original Article)


08 Faculty of Science > Department of Biology > Institute of Plant Sciences (IPS)
08 Faculty of Science > Department of Biology > Institute of Plant Sciences (IPS) > Vegetation Ecology [discontinued]

UniBE Contributor:

Norghauer, Julian Martin and Newbery, David McClintock


500 Science > 580 Plants (Botany)
500 Science > 590 Animals (Zoology)








Peter Alfred von Ballmoos-Haas

Date Deposited:

31 Mar 2014 15:43

Last Modified:

20 Mar 2017 16:29

Publisher DOI:


Uncontrolled Keywords:

Seedling herbivory, Korup–Cameroon, Light environment, Microberlinia bisulcata, Recruitment limitation, Herbivore exclusion





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