Successional patches are a large component of forest ecosystems throughout the world and their vegetation composition is conditioned by multiple factors such as land use history, disturbances, environmental conditions and landscape context. We investigated the relative contribution of historical, environmental, biotic and spatial factors in determining vegetation composition and invasion by exotic species in secondary forest patches of Sierra de San Javier, Tucumán, Argentina. We estimated canopy cover for shrub, vine and tree species distributed over 51 patches with known land use history. We also recorded environmental, historical and spatial variables and used multivariate techniques to explore the relationship between forest composition and explanatory variables. Land use, time since abandonment, altitude, slope and cover of different strata were related to the vegetation pattern in the study site, and they were all significantly structured over space. Exotic species appeared to differ from natives in their response to explanatory variables. Overall, exotic species were dominant on the edges of young patches originated from herbaceous crops, but the total number of exotic species was related to the distance to urban areas and small farms identified as potential sources of exotic propagules. Vegetation composition of secondary forests in NW Argentina was related to historical and environmental factors, but spatial variables strongly influenced vegetation composition as well as the variation in explanatory variables.
Abbreviations: GPS = Global positioning system; MRPP = Multi response permutation procedure; NMDS = Non-metric Multidimensional Scaling; PBSSJ = Parque Biológico Sierra de San Javier; UTM = Universal Transverse Mercator system.