Biotic and abiotic drivers of seedling establishment and survival are fundamental not only for elucidating processes occurring at plant early life stages, but also for assisting species natural regeneration. Keystone, multipurpose and economically important tree species such as Afzelia africana Sm. are reportedly facing recruitment constraints, yet little is known about how abiotic and biotic factors shape the species seedling dynamics. Here, we monitored the species seedlings over one year across three seasons in West Africa savannahs to determine how conspecific and heterospecific biotic neighborhood and habitat heterogeneity correlate with initial seedling density, leaves’ fungal infection and herbivory and how all these factors combined, influence the species seedling survival. Seedling densities increased with increasing conspecific adult densities, and were highest in tree savannahs and on sandy-silt soils. Leaves’ fungal infection and herbivory were also positively associated with conspecific adult density, but were more abundantly observed in tree savannahs than in shrub savannahs. Seedling survival was constrained on higher slope, and negatively affected by conspecific adult density, especially in shrub savannahs. There was a strong evidence for negative density-dependence effects of conspecific adults on seedling survival, which operated through negative effects of herbivory and fungal infection. Habitat heterogeneity was also an important driver, which modulated biotic factors’ effects on seedling survival: tree savannahs promote positive conspecific density-dependence of seedling fungal infection and herbivory more than shrub savannahs. Nonetheless, seedlings were more sensitive to natural enemies in shrub savannahs, suggesting increased negative conspecific density-dependence effects on seedling survival in less dense vegetation, possibly as a result of enhanced specialization of predators and pathogens on a limited set of species. The study brings important insights into the mechanisms that drive the establishment and survival of the species seedling, which should be considered in the design of management activities aiming at the conservation of this endangered species.
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