Dry conditions and disturbance promote liana seedling survival and abundance
Species composition and community structure in Neotropical forests have been severely affected by increases in climate change and disturbance. Among the most conspicuous changes is the proliferation of lianas. These increases have affected not only the carbon storage capacity of forests but also tree dynamics by reducing tree growth and increasing mortality. Despite the importance of lianas in Neotropical forests, most of the studies on lianas have focused on adult stages, ignoring dynamics at the seedlings stage. Here, we asked whether observed increases in liana abundance are associated with a demographic advantage that emerges early in liana ontogeny and with decreased precipitation and increased disturbance. To test this, we compared patterns of growth and survival between liana seedlings and tree seedlings using a long‐term data set of seedling plots from a subtropical wet forest in Puerto Rico, USA. Then, we examined the effect of precipitation and land use history on these demographic variables. We found evidence for liana seedling survival advantage over trees, but no growth advantages. This survival advantage exhibited significant temporal variation linked with patterns of rainfall, as well as differences associated with land‐use history in the study area. Furthermore, we found that neighborhood density has a negative effect on liana survival and growth. Our results indicate that liana proliferation is likely related to a survival advantage that emerges in early stages and is influenced by climatic conditions and past disturbance. Predicted climatic changes in rainfall patterns, including more frequent and severe droughts, together with increases in disturbance, could have a significant effect on seedling tropical communities by favoring lianas.