Fragmentation and matrix contrast favor understory plants through negative cascading effects on a strong competitor palm.
Understanding the patterns and processes driving biodiversity maintenance in fragmented tropical forests is urgently needed for conservation planning, especially in species-rich forest reserves. Of particular concern are the effects that habitat modifications at the landscape scale may have on forest regeneration and ecosystem functioning: a topic that has received limited attention. Here, we assessed the effects of landscape structure (i.e., forest cover, open area matrices, forest fragmentation, and mean inter-patch isolation distance) on understory plant assemblages in the Los Tuxtlas Biosphere Reserve, Mexico. Previous studies suggest that the demographic burst of the strong competitor palm Astrocaryum mexicanum in the core area of this reserve limits plant recruitment and imperils biodiversity conservation within this protected area. Yet, the local and landscape predictors of this palm, and its impact on tree recruitment at a regional scale are unknown. Thus, we used structural equation modeling to assess the direct and cascading effects of landscape structure on stem and species density in the understory of 20 forest sites distributed across this biodiversity hotspot. Indirect paths included the effect of landscape structure on tree basal area (a proxy of local disturbance), and the effects of these variables on A. mexicanum. Density of A. mexicanum mainly increased with decreasing both fragmentation and open areas in the matrix (matrix contrast, hereafter), and such an increase in palm density negatively affected stem and species density in the understory. The negative direct effect of matrix contrast on stem density was overridden by the indirect positive effects (i.e., through negative cascading effects on A. mexicanum), resulting in a weak effect of matrix contrast on stem density. These findings suggest that dispersal limitation and negative edge effects in more fragmented landscapes dominated by open areas prevent the proliferation of this palm species, enhancing the diversity and abundance of understory trees. This "positive" news adds to an increasing line of evidence suggesting that fragmentation may have some positive effects on biodiversity, in this case by preventing the proliferation of species that can jeopardize biodiversity conservation within tropical reserves.