Letter

Nature 447, 80-82 (3 May 2007) | doi:10.1038/nature05747; Received 1 November 2006; Accepted 14 March 2007

Drought sensitivity shapes species distribution patterns in tropical forests

Bettina M. J. Engelbrecht1,2, Liza S. Comita3, Richard Condit1, Thomas A. Kursar1,4, Melvin T. Tyree1,5,6, Benjamin L. Turner1 & Stephen P. Hubbell1,3

  1. Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, Apartado 0843-03092, Balboa, Ancon, Panama
  2. Department of Plant Ecology and Systematics, University of Kaiserslautern, 67663 Kaiserslautern, Germany
  3. Department of Plant Biology, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia 30602, USA
  4. Department of Biology, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, Utah 84112, USA
  5. USDA Forest Service, PO Box 968, Burlington, Vermont 05402, USA
  6. Department of Renewable Resources, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta T6G 2E3, Canada

Correspondence to: Bettina M. J. Engelbrecht1,2 Correspondence and requests for materials should be addressed to B.M.J.E. (Email: engelbrb@si.edu).

Although patterns of tree species distributions along environmental gradients have been amply documented in tropical forests1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, mechanisms causing these patterns are seldom known. Efforts to evaluate proposed mechanisms have been hampered by a lack of comparative data on species' reactions to relevant axes of environmental variation1. Here we show that differential drought sensitivity shapes plant distributions in tropical forests at both regional and local scales. Our analyses are based on experimental field assessments of drought sensitivity of 48 species of trees and shrubs, and on their local and regional distributions within a network of 122 inventory sites spanning a rainfall gradient across the Isthmus of Panama. Our results suggest that niche differentiation with respect to soil water availability is a direct determinant of both local- and regional-scale distributions of tropical trees. Changes in soil moisture availability caused by global climate change and forest fragmentation are therefore likely to alter tropical species distributions, community composition and diversity.

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