Natural Enemies and the Maintenance of Tropical Tree Diversity: Recent Insights and Implications for the Future of Biodiversity in a Changing World

  • Liza S. Comita Yale University
  • Simon M. Stump Yale University
Keywords: Conspecific negative density dependence, insect herbivores, Janzen-Connell hypothesis, modern coexistence theory, plant pathogens, species coexistence, tropical forest


Over the past five decades, many studies have examined the Janzen-Connell hypothesis, which posits that host-specific natural enemies, such as insect herbivores and fungal pathogens, promote plant species coexistence by providing a recruitment advantage to rare plant species. Recently, researchers have been exploring new and exciting angles on plant-enemy interactions that have yielded novel insights into this long-standing hypothesis. Here, we highlight some empirical advances in our understanding of plant-enemy interactions in tropical forests, including improved understanding of variation in plant species’ susceptibility to enemy effects, as well as insect and pathogen host ranges. We then review recent advances in related ecological theory. These theoretical studies have confirmed that specialist natural enemies can promote tree diversity. However, they have also shown that the impact of natural enemies may be weakened, or that natural enemies could even cause species exclusion, depending on enemy host range, the spatial extent of enemy effects, and variation among plant species in seed dispersal or enemy susceptibility. Finally, we end by discussing how human impacts on tropical forests, such as fragmentation, hunting, and climate change, may alter the plant-enemy interactions that contribute to tropical forest diversity.