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Drought sensitivity shapes species distribution patterns in tropical forests


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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Figure 1: Maps of the study areas and distribution of one tree species, as an example.
Figure 2: Significant relationships between drought sensitivity of seedlings and regional and local distributions of species.

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We thank the more than two dozen field assistants who conducted the extensive censuses and drought experiments. S. Aguilar and R. Perez were instrumental in species identifications, and S. Lao assisted with data management. The study was financially supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation (T.A.K., B.M.J.E. and M.T.T.), the National Science Foundation (S.P.H. and L.S.C.), the University of Utah (T.A.K. and B.M.J.E.), the Center of Tropical Forest Science (B.M.J.E and L.S.C.) and the German Science Foundation (B.M.J.E.). We acknowledge logistical support provided by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Center and the opportunity to work in the area granted by the ‘Autoridad Nacional del Ambiente’ (ANAM) of Panama.

Author Contributions B.M.J.E. and L.S.C. analysed the compiled data sets and coordinated the writing. B.M.J.E., T.A.K. and M.T.T. conducted the drought sensitivity experiments. L.S.C. and S.P.H. managed the seedling census, and R.C. and S.P.H. the tree census, in the 50-ha forest dynamics plot. R.C. coordinated the establishment and census of the regional inventory network, and modelled species occurrence against dry season length. B.L.T. conducted soil nutrient analyses. All authors discussed the results and commented on the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Bettina M. J. Engelbrecht.

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Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

This file contains Supplementary Information on the experimental drought sensitivity index, local species distributions, the relation of species light requirements to distributions, the relation of soil nutrient status to dry season length, on modelling dry season length, and on fitting species occurrence to dry season length. (PDF 184 kb)

Supplementary Notes

This file contains Supplementary Notes with details on the Supplementary Data 1, 3 and 4, Supplementary Figures and on the Supplementary Program. (PDF 32 kb)

Supplementary Data 1

This file contains Supplementary Data 1 which presents details for the 44 rainfall collection stations operated by the Panama Canal Authority. See Supplementary Notes for details. (PDF 30 kb)

Supplementary Data 2

This file contains Supplementary Data 2 which gives locations, elevations and predicted dry season length for the 122 tree inventory sites. (PDF 106 kb)

Supplementary Data 3

This file contains Supplementary Data 3 which gives information on the presence (1) or absence (0) of 44 species at 122 inventory sites in the Panama Canal area. See Supplementary Notes for details. (PDF 73 kb)

Supplementary Data 4

This file contains Supplementary Data 4 which gives the estimated habitat response for 44 species used in drought experiments. See Supplementary Notes for details. (PDF 48 kb)

Supplementary Figures

This file contains Supplementary Figures which show the fitted kernels for the 44 experimental species as a function of dry season duration. See Supplementary Notes for details. (PDF 6930 kb)

Supplementary Program

This file contains Supplementary Program. The file includes the R scripts for running the Gibbs sampler to fit an optimized Gaussian kernel to species occurrence as a function of dry season duration. See Supplementary Notes for details. (PDF 114 kb)

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Engelbrecht, B., Comita, L., Condit, R. et al. Drought sensitivity shapes species distribution patterns in tropical forests. Nature 447, 80–82 (2007).

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