Agent‐based modeling of the effects of forest dynamics, selective logging, and fragment size on epiphyte communities

Gunnar Petter*, Gerhard Zotz, Holger Kreft, Juliano Sarmento Cabral

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

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1. Forest canopies play a crucial role in structuring communities of vascular epiphytes by providing substrate for colonization, by locally varying microclimate, and by causing epiphyte mortality due to branch or tree fall. However, as field studies in the three-dimensional habitat of epiphytes are generally challenging, our understanding of how forest structure and dynamics influence the structure and dynamics of epiphyte communities is scarce.
2. Mechanistic models can improve our understanding of epiphyte community dynamics. We present such a model that couples dispersal, growth, and mortality of individual epiphytes with substrate dynamics, obtained from a three-dimensional functional–structural forest model, allowing the study of forest–epiphyte interactions. After validating the epiphyte model with independent field data, we performed several theoretical simulation experiments to assess how (a) differences in natural forest dynamics, (b) selective logging, and (c) forest fragmentation could influence the long-term dynamics of epiphyte communities.
3. The proportion of arboreal substrate occupied by epiphytes (i.e., saturation level) was tightly linked with forest dynamics and increased with decreasing forest turnover rates. While species richness was, in general, negatively correlated with forest turnover rates, low species numbers in forests with very-low-turnover rates were due to competitive exclusion when epiphyte communities became saturated. Logging had a negative impact on epiphyte communities, potentially leading to a near-complete extirpation of epiphytes when the simulated target diameters fell below a threshold. Fragment size had no effect on epiphyte abundance and saturation level but correlated positively with species numbers.
4. Synthesis: The presented model is a first step toward studying the dynamic forest–epiphyte interactions in an agent-based modeling framework. Our study suggests forest dynamics as key factor in controlling epiphyte communities. Thus, both natural and human-induced changes in forest dynamics, for example, increased mortality rates or the loss of large trees, pose challenges for epiphyte conservation.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2937–2951
Number of pages15
JournalEcology and Evolution
Issue number6
Early online date28 Feb 2021
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2021


  • canopy dynamics
  • community assembly
  • demography
  • epiphyte assemblages
  • epiphyte interactions
  • forest
  • individual-based model
  • long-term dynamics
  • vascular epiphytes


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