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Coexistence and relative abundance in forest trees


Contemporary acceleration of biodiversity loss makes increasingly urgent the need to understand the controls of species coexistence1,2. Tree diversity in particular plays a pivotal role in determining terrestrial biodiversity, through maintaining diversity of its dependent species3,4 and with them, their predators and parasites. Most theories of coexistence based on the principle of limiting similarity suggest that coexistence of competing species is inherently unstable; coexistence of competitors must be maintained by external forces such as disturbance5,6, immigration7 or ‘patchiness’ of resources in space and time8,9. In contrast, storage theory postulates stable coexistence of competing species through temporal alternation of conditions favouring recruitment of one species over the other10,11. Here we use storage theory to develop explicit predictions for relative differences between competitors that allow us to discriminate between coexistence models. Data on tree species from a primary forest on the Mexican Pacific coast support a general dynamic of storage processes determining coexistence of similar tree species in this community, and allow us to reject all other theories of coexistence.

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Figure 1: Curves for values of f, the fraction of time in which recruitment for species 1 is ‘on’.
Figure 2: Fractional deviation of age classes from an expected exponential distribution.
Figure 3: Contrasts of common and rare congeneric taxa.


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We thank F. I. Woodward, P. Doncaster, P. Harvey, M. Fenner and P. Chesson for comments. This work was supported by grants to C.K.K. from the US-Mexico Foundation for Science, the Earthwatch Foundation and the National Geographic Society. C.K.K. thanks Merton College for a visiting research fellowship during the initiation of this project.

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Correspondence to Colleen K. Kelly.

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Kelly, C., Bowler, M. Coexistence and relative abundance in forest trees. Nature 417, 437–440 (2002).

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