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Tropical forest understory regeneration occurs rapidly after disturbance with compositional trajectories that depend on species availability and environmental conditions. To predict future tropical forest regeneration dynamics, we need a deeper understanding of how pulse disturbance events, like hurricanes, interact with environmental variability to affect understory demography and composition. We examined fern and sapling mortality, recruitment, and community composition in relation to solar radiation and soil moisture using 17 years of forest dynamics data (2003–2019) from the Canopy Trimming Experiment in the Luquillo Experimental Forest, Puerto Rico. Solar radiation increased 150% and soil moisture increased 40% following canopy trimming of experimental plots relative to control plots. All plots were disturbed in 2017 by Hurricanes Irma and Maria, so experimentally trimmed plots presented the opportunity to study the effects of multiple hurricanes, while control plots isolated the effects of a single natural hurricane. Recruitment rates maximized at 0.14 individuals/plot/month for ferns and 0.20 stems/plot/month for saplings. Recruitment and mortality were distributed more evenly over the 17 years of monitoring in experimentally trimmed plots than in control plots; however, following Hurricane Maria demographic rates substantially increased in control plots only. In experimentally trimmed plots, the largest community compositional shifts occurred as a result of the trimming events, and compositional changes were greatest for control plots after Hurricane Maria in 2017. Pioneer tree and fern species increased in abundance in response to both simulated and natural hurricanes. Following Hurricane Maria, two dominant pioneer species, Cyathea arborea and Cecropia schreberiana, recruited abundantly, but only in control plots. In trimmed plots, increased solar radiation and soil moisture shifted understory species composition steadily toward pioneer and secondary-successional species, with soil moisture interacting strongly with canopy trimming. Thus, both solar radiation and soil moisture are environmental drivers affecting pioneer species recruitment following disturbance, which interact with canopy opening following hurricanes. Our results suggest that if hurricane disturbances increase in frequency and severity, as suggested by climate change predictions, the understory regeneration of late-successional species, such as Manilkara bidentata and Sloanea berteroana, which prefer deeper shade and slightly drier soil microsites, may become imperiled.
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