The world's greatest terrestrial stores of biodiversity and carbon are found in the forests of northern South America, where large-scale biogeographic patterns and processes have recently begun to be described1,2,3,4. Seven of the nine countries with territory in the Amazon basin and the Guiana shield have carried out large-scale forest inventories, but such massive data sets have been little exploited by tropical plant ecologists5,6,7,8. Although forest inventories often lack the species-level identifications favoured by tropical plant ecologists, their consistency of measurement and vast spatial coverage make them ideally suited for numerical analyses at large scales, and a valuable resource to describe the still poorly understood spatial variation of biomass, diversity, community composition and forest functioning across the South American tropics9. Here we show, by using the seven forest inventories complemented with trait and inventory data collected elsewhere, two dominant gradients in tree composition and function across the Amazon, one paralleling a major gradient in soil fertility and the other paralleling a gradient in dry season length. The data set also indicates that the dominance of Fabaceae in the Guiana shield is not necessarily the result of root adaptations to poor soils (nodulation or ectomycorrhizal associations) but perhaps also the result of their remarkably high seed mass there as a potential adaptation to low rates of disturbance.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution
Subscribe to this journal
Receive 51 print issues and online access
$199.00 per year
only $3.90 per issue
Rent or buy this article
Prices vary by article type
Prices may be subject to local taxes which are calculated during checkout
Terborgh, J. & Andresen, E. The composition of Amazonian forests: patterns at local and regional scale. J. Trop. Ecol. 14, 645–664 (1998)
ter Steege, H. et al. An analysis of the floristic composition and diversity of Amazonian forests including those of the Guiana Shield. J. Trop. Ecol. 16, 801–828 (2000)
Phillips, O. L. et al. Pattern and process in Amazon tree turnover, 1976–2001. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. B 359, 381–407 (2004)
Malhi, Y. et al. The above-ground coarse wood productivity of 104 Neotropical forest plots. Glob. Change Biol. 10, 563–591 (2004)
van Rompaey, R. S. A. R. Forest Gradients in West Africa. PhD thesis, Wageningen Univ. (1993)
ter Steege, H. The use of forest inventory data for a National Protected Area Strategy in Guyana. Biodivers. Conserv. 7, 1457–1483 (1998)
ter Steege, H. & Zondervan, G. in Plant Diversity in Guyana with Recommendations for a National Protected Area Strategy (ed. ter Steege, H.) 35–54 (Tropenbos Series 18, Tropenbos Foundation, Wageningen, 2000)
Bongers, F., Poorter, L. & Hawthorne, W. D. in Biodiversity of West African Forests. An Ecological Atlas of Woody Plant Species (eds Poorter, L., Bongers, F., Kouame, F. N. & Hawthorne, W.) 41–52 (CABI Publishing, Wallingford, 2004)
ter Steege, H. & Hammond, D. S. Character convergence, diversity, and disturbance in tropical rain forest in Guyana. Ecology 82, 3197–3212 (2001)
RADAMBRASIL. Levantamento de Recursos Naturais (Ministério de Minas e Energia, Departamento Nacional de Produção Mineral, Rio de Janeiro, 1968–1978).
ter Steege, H. Long-term Changes in Tropical Tree Diversity: Studies from the Guiana Shield, Africa, Borneo and Melanesia (Tropenbos Series 22, Tropenbos International, Wageningen, 2003).
Connell, J. H. Diversity in tropical rain forests and coral reefs. Science 199, 1302–1309 (1978)
ter Steege, H. et al. A spatial model of tree α-diversity and -density for the Amazon Region. Biodivers. Conserv. 12, 2255–2276 (2003)
Gregory-Wodzicki, K. Uplift history of the Central and Northern Andes: a review. Geol. Soc. Am. Bull. 112, 1091–1105 (2000)
Bush, M. B., Silman, M. R. & Urrego, D. H. 48,000 years of climate and forest change in a biodiversity hot spot. Science 303, 827–829 (2004)
Houghton, J. T. et al. Climate Change 2001: The Scientific Basis (Cambridge Univ. Press, Cambridge, 2001)
Sprent, J. I. Nodulation in Legumes (Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, 2001)
Janzen, D. H. Tropical blackwater rivers, animals, and mast fruiting by the dipterocarpaceae. Biotropica 6, 69–103 (1974)
Rankin, J. M. The Influence of Seed Predation and Plant Competition on Three Species Abundances in Two Adjacent Tropical Rain Forest Communities in Trinidad, West Indies. PhD thesis, Univ. of Michigan (1978)
Fearnside, P. M. Wood density for estimating forest biomass in Brazilian Amazonia. For. Ecol. Manage. 90, 59–87 (1997)
Casper, B. B., Heard, S. B. & Apanius, V. Ecological correlates of single-seededness in a woody tropical flora. Oecologia 90, 212–217 (1992)
Chave, J. et al. Regional and phylogenetic variation of wood density across 2456 neotropical tree species. Ecol. Appl. (in the press)
Stevens, P. F. Angiosperm Phylogeny Website, Version 6, May 2005. http://www.mobot.org/MOBOT/research/APweb/ (2005).
van Roosmalen, M. G. M. Fruits of the Guianan Flora (Institute of Systematic Botany, Utrecht Univ., Utrecht, 1985)
Seed Information Database. SID release 6.0http://www.rbgkew.org.uk/data/sid/ (2004).
Hammond, D. S. & Brown, V. K. Seed weight of woody plants in relation to disturbance, dispersal, soil type in wet Neotropical forests. Ecology 76, 2544–2561 (1995)
Sombroek, W. Spatial and temporal patterns of Amazon rainfall. Consequences for the planning of agricultural occupation and protection of primary forests. Ambio 30, 388–396 (2001)
We thank the Guyana Forestry Commission, the Center for Agricultural Research in Suriname (CELOS), Cirad-Forêt, Office National des Forêts (ONF) and Aernout Weeda of Zonisig for making data available for this research; P. Haripersaud for typing in practically all of the RADAMBRASIL data; and P.-M. Forget, M. Werger, H. During and M. Pascal for discussions and comments on the manuscript. This work would not have been possible without decades of dedicated fieldwork by hundreds of colleagues and forestry workers across South America.
Reprints and permissions information is available at www.nature.com/reprints. The authors declare no competing financial interests.
About this article
Cite this article
ter Steege, H., Pitman, N., Phillips, O. et al. Continental-scale patterns of canopy tree composition and function across Amazonia. Nature 443, 444–447 (2006). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature05134
This article is cited by
Unraveling tree species connections and their relationships with environment in a vegetation mosaic in Brazil
Folia Geobotanica (2023)
Brazilian Journal of Botany (2022)
Soil properties and geomorphic processes influence vegetation composition, structure, and function in the Cerrado Domain
Plant and Soil (2022)