Even though many forest plants spend all or a significant portion of their lives in the forest understory, few studies have compared understory composition, structure, and resource availability among forests. We used standardized transect-based methods to compare small sapling densities (10–50 cm tall), understory vegetation cover, canopy openness, and nutrient availability in non-gap portions of four lowland Neotropical forests: La Selva, Costa Rica (LS), Barro Colorado Island, Panama (BCI), Cocha Cashu, Peru (CC), and north of Manaus, Brazil (KM41). Sites differed significantly in all variables except canopy openness. LS had high palm and non-fern herb cover and low density of small saplings (0.7–1.6/m2) compared to other sites. CC had high fern cover, whereas BCI had low cover in all categories of understory vegetation (palms, ferns, and non-fern herbaceous plants). BCI, CC, and KM41 had similar small sapling densities, ranging from 4.8–7.5/m2. Within each forest, cation (Ca, Mg, K, and Na) availability was usually higher on more fertile soil orders (Inceptisols, Alfisols, and Entisols) than on more weathered soil types (Ultisols and Oxisols). Extractable P was highest at LS and CC and lowest on BCI (no data for KM41). Spatial autocorrelation was present for some variables in some transects to distances beyond our detection ability (>25 m). Understory palm cover was negatively correlated with small sapling density at fine (1 m2 quadrat) and coarse spatial scales (among forests), although across forests the effect of palms was due entirely to the difference between LS and the other three forests. These results provide cross-site support for the hypothesis that understory cover by palms decreases the density of small saplings that comprise the advance regeneration of the forest.
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