Land use history, hurricane disturbance, and the fate of introduced species in a subtropical wet forest in Puerto Rico.
Tropical forests are suffering from increasing intensities and frequency of disturbances. As a result, non-native species accidentally introduced or intentionally planted for farming, plantations, and ornamental purposes may spread and potentially invade undisturbed native forest. It is not known if these introduced species will become invasive, as a result of recurrent natural disturbances such as hurricanes. Using data from three censuses (spanning 15 years) of a 16-ha subtropical wet forest plot, we investigated the impact of two hurricanes on populations of plant species that were planted in farms and plantations that were then abandoned and from the natural spread of species introduced into Puerto Rico in the past. The populations of four species (Citrus paradis, Mangifera indica, Musa sp., and Simarouba glauca) changed little over time. Six species (Artocarpus altilis, Calophyllum calaba, Genipa americana, Hibiscus pernambucensis, Syzygium jambos, and Swietenia macrophylla) declined between the first two censuses after Hurricane Hugo, then increased again in Census 3 after Hurricane Georges. Spathodea campanulata gradually increased from census to census, while Coffea arabica declined. These introduced species represent only a small part of the forest basal area and few show signs of increasing over time. The number of stems per plant, new recruits, and the growth rates of these introduced species were within the ranges of those for native plant species. The mortality rates over both census intervals were significantly lower for introduced species (<5% year-1) than for native ones (15% year-1). Many new recruits established after Hurricane Hugo (prior to this study) had opened the forest canopy and these high mortality rates reflect their death as the canopy recovered. Only Swietenia macrophylla and Syzygium jambos showed an increase in stem numbers in the closed canopy area of forest that had suffered limited human disturbance in the past. A future increase in frequency of disturbance may enable greater stem numbers of introduced species to establish, while lower-mortality rates compared to native species, may allow them to persist during inter-hurricane intervals. An increase in the population of introduced species, especially for those that grow into large trees, may have an impact on this tropical forest in the future.