Resilience to chronic defoliation in a dioecious understorey tropical rain forest palm

L. Lopez-Toledo, N.P.R. Anten, B.A. Endress, D.D. Ackerly, M. Martínez-Ramos

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

18 Citations (Scopus)


1. Perennial plants often endure chronic loss of leaf area due to recurrent physical damage, herbivory and, for species used as non-timber forest products, due to leaf harvesting. However, little is known about functional and demographic resilience (extent and speed of recovery) of plants subjected to varying levels of chronic defoliation. 2. We used a dioecious, understorey palm (Chamaedorea elegans) to evaluate temporal trajectories and rates of recovery of leaf functional traits and vital rates (survival, growth and reproduction) after being subjected to experimental chronic defoliation regimes. 3. Pristine populations of mature C. elegans, categorized by gender (male and female), were subjected to five defoliation levels (0%, 33%, 50%, 66% or 100% of newly produced leaves) every 6 months over a period of 3 years (1997–2000). To evaluate recovery from defoliation, surviving palms were monitored for 3 years after the cessation of the defoliation treatment (2000–2003). We recorded leaf functional traits (leaf persistence, leaf production rate, leaf size and leaf area) and annual rates of mortality, growth and reproduction. 4. Cumulative effects of chronic defoliation concomitantly reduced leaf traits, survival, growth and reproduction, and this effect was stronger in female than in male palms, independent of plant size. Recovery from defoliation was faster in males than in females, but proceeded gradually overall. Survival increased first, followed by growth, while reproductive traits showed the slowest recovery rate. Recovery was independent of plant size. Notably, 3 years after defoliation treatment, the standing leaf area and probability of reproduction had not recovered to pre-defoliation levels. Additionally, we found that the occurrence of a severe drought in the first year (2000) after defoliation ceased led to decreased survival, growth and reproduction and the ability of plants to recover from defoliation. 5. Synthesis. Chronic defoliation reduces fitness components of C. elegans palms differentially between genders. Recovery is gradual and is slower and less complete in females compared with males. The lower level of resilience to chronic defoliation shown by female plants may have profound consequences for the dynamics and genetic variability of populations of tropical understorey plants undergoing prolonged defoliation. Such effects may be aggravated by severe drought episodes that are expected to increase in frequency according to global climate change predictions.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1245-1256
JournalJournal of Ecology
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - 2012


  • carbohydrate reserves
  • astrocaryum-mexicanum
  • seedling survival
  • leaf harvest
  • vital-rates
  • growth
  • reproduction
  • herbivory
  • plants
  • sustainability

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