Multispecies coexistence of trees in tropical forests: spatial signals of topographic niche differentiation increase with environmental heterogeneity

C. Brown*, D. F. R. P. Burslem, J. B. Illian, L. Bao, W. Brockelman, M. Cao, L. W. Chang, H. S. Dattaraja, S. Davies, C. V. S. Gunatilleke, I. A. U. N. Gunatilleke, J. Huang, A. R. Kassim, J. V. LaFrankie, J. Lian, L. Lin, K. Ma, X. Mi, A. Nathalang, S. NoorP. Ong, R. Sukumar, S. H. Su, I. F. Sun, H. S. Suresh, S. Tan, J. Thompson, M. Uriarte, R. Valencia, S. L. Yap, W. Ye, R. Law

*Corresponding author for this work

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Neutral and niche theories give contrasting explanations for the maintenance of tropical tree species diversity. Both have some empirical support, but methods to disentangle their effects have not yet been developed. We applied a statistical measure of spatial structure to data from 14 large tropical forest plots to test a prediction of niche theory that is incompatible with neutral theory: that species in heterogeneous environments should separate out in space according to their niche preferences. We chose plots across a range of topographic heterogeneity, and tested whether pairwise spatial associations among species were more variable in more heterogeneous sites. We found strong support for this prediction, based on a strong positive relationship between variance in the spatial structure of species pairs and topographic heterogeneity across sites. We interpret this pattern as evidence of pervasive niche differentiation, which increases in importance with increasing environmental heterogeneity.

Original languageEnglish
Article number20130502
Number of pages8
JournalProceedings of the Royal Society of London. B, Biological Sciences
Issue number1764
Early online date19 Jun 2013
Publication statusPublished - 7 Aug 2013


  • species coexistence
  • tropical forest
  • niche differentiation
  • neutral theory
  • spatial pattern
  • cross-pair overlap distribution
  • Lankan dipterocarp forest
  • habitaty associations
  • beta-diversity
  • patterns
  • communities
  • abundance
  • distributions
  • availability
  • mechanisms

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