Cecropia schreberiana in the Luquillo Mountains of Puerto Rico

Research paper by Nicholas V. L. Brokaw

Indexed on: 01 Apr '98Published on: 01 Apr '98Published in: The Botanical review; interpreting botanical progress


Cecropia schreberiana Miq. (Cecropiaceae) is a common tree in the Luquillo Mountains of Puerto Rico because it is a pioneer that establishes abundantly after recurrent hurricanes that damage Luquillo forests. In these forestsC. schreberiana typically reaches about 20 m in height and 60 cm dbh and has few branches, these bearing large, deeply lobed leaves. The wood is light and weak. Unlike most of its congeners,C. schreberiana in Puerto Rico does not have symbiotic ants. It is dioecious and produces wind-pollinated flowers in spikes and abundant minute seeds broadly dispersed by birds and bats. Forest soils contain a high density of its seeds, which lie dormant until canopy opening stimulates germination. With adequate nutrientsC. schreberiana grows fast in high light, while nondominant individuals suffer heavy mortality. An individual of the species is thought to live 30 to 50 years.Cecropia schreberiana is uncommon in abandoned pastures in the Luquillo Mountains. It colonizes road cuts, landslides, and infrequent, large treefall gaps. Yet these disturbances provide only a limited “background regeneration,” which is not sufficient to maintain the species’ observed high abundance in Luquillo forests. However, there is widespread and abundantC. schreberiana regeneration after hurricane damage opens the forest canopy. Despite high mortality among these post-hurricane colonizers, enough survive and grow so thatC. schreberiana is generally among the ten most common canopy trees in the widespread “tabonuco” forest type. Post-hurricane colonizers mature, senesce, and decline in number, butC. schreberiana remains abundant as seeds in the soil ready to form tree cohorts after disturbance.The status of theC. schreberiana population indicates the developmental status of the forest as a whole. Moreover,C. schreberiana performs a key function in the reorganization of Luquillo forest ecosystems after disturbance, when its abundant regeneration and rapid growth capture and store nutrients. Also, its colonizing saplings may facilitate succession to mature forest by excluding grasses, herbs, and vines that hinder forest development. The biology of this species both reflects and helps drive the dynamics of forests in the Luquillo Mountains.