Treefall gaps deliver diversity

When John Terborgh began research at Cocha Cashu Biological Station in Peru back in 1974, he probably did not expect to still be working there 43 years later, doing research and publishing papers about the astounding species diversity in its tropical floodplain rainforest.

JT_TreefallLisa Davenport

John Terborgh leans against a fallen tree that has created a gap in the forest canopy. Credit: Lisa Davenport.

One contributor to species diversity in tropical forests is treefall gaps, which form when a mature tree falls down, opening up a gap in the overhead canopy. The most obvious change associated with treefall gaps is an increase in light that reaches the canopy floor. In comparison to the closed canopy, treefall gaps may be dryer, warmer, have increased plant transpiration rates, and may host many different species that colonize the new environment.

Treefallgap Irina Skinner

Small treefall gap in a dense rainforest. Credit: Irina Skinner

While it’s clear that gaps influence the physical environment of the forest floor, it is not clear how a changed physical environment translates to biological diversity of the treefall gap community. Comparing treefall gaps to closed canopy communities, Terborgh and his colleagues explored this relationship.

First the researchers asked whether the seed rain into tree gap communities is different from the seed rain into closed canopy communities. Seed rain describes the types and abundance of seeds that are dispersed into communities. Usually seeds are blown into communities by the wind, or enter attached to the bodies or excrement of animals. Alternatively, some seeds are autochorous – self-dispersing, in some cases aided by a change in fruit shape that causes seeds to be ejected explosively.

To do this analysis Terborgh and his colleagues needed a systematic way to measure seed rain. The researchers set up a regularly-spaced grid of small containers (seed traps) that collected a portion of the seeds that entered the community. They also needed a way to describe whether the canopy was closed, somewhat open, or very open as in a treefall gap. For each seed trap they calculated a canopy cover index (CCI), which measured the amount of vegetation found at different levels directly above the traps. A value of 0 indicated no vegetation (a completely open canopy), while a value of 6 indicated dense vegetation at all levels (a completely closed canopy).

As the graphs below indicate, there were some dramatic differences between gaps and canopies. Note that the x-axis has been log-transformed so CCI = 1 transforms to a log(CCI) = 0, and a CCI = 6 transforms to log(CCI) = 0.778. All four major groups of animal seed dispersers dispersed many more seeds into closed canopy forest than into treefall gaps. The relationship between seed abundance and canopy cover was strikingly linear for primates and small arboreal animals. This makes sense, as these animals tend to sit on trees, and spread seeds either through defecation of already eaten fruit, or by eating fruits and inadvertently spilling some seeds in the process. So very few trees in treefall gaps translates to many fewer seeds in treefall gaps, with most (76%) being blown in by the wind.


The log abundance of potentially viable seeds (PV seeds on y-axes) collected in seed traps in relation to the log (canopy cover index) for six different types of seed dispersal agents/mechanisms.

Terborgh and his colleagues realized that differences in seed dispersal could profoundly influence the number and types of plants that were recruited into the population. Despite the scarcity of animals in tree fall gaps, most of the saplings (79%) that recruited into gaps were animal dispersed, whereas wind-dispersed species made up only 1% of the saplings.

Sapling species diversity was greater under a closed canopy.


Sapling species diversity (measured as log(Fisher’s alpha)) in relation to canopy cover (measured as log (canopy cover index)).

Though species diversity was lower in tree fall gaps in comparison to the closed canopy, species composition (the types of species found there) was very different in treefall gaps. There were many species that recruited only under gaps, and were never found under a closed canopy. Interestingly, there is good evidence that the small treefall gaps in this study recruited a different set of tree species than do larger treefall gaps, which tend to recruit species that do best under conditions of very bright sunlight. Thus the researchers conclude that treefall gaps, small and large, offer a wide range of environmental conditions not found in the closed canopy,  that ultimately help to promote astoundingly high tropical forest tree diversity.

note: the paper that describes this research is from the journal Ecology. The reference is Terborgh, J., Huanca Nuñez, N., Alvarez Loayza, P. and Cornejo Valverde, F. (2017), Gaps contribute tree diversity to a tropical floodplain forest. Ecology, 98: 2895–2903. doi:10.1002/ecy.1991. Thanks to the Ecological Society of America for allowing me to use figures from the paper. Copyright © 2017 by the Ecological Society of America. All rights reserved.