Slow-growing species cope best with drought: evidence from long-term measurements in a tropical semi-deciduous moist forest of Central Africa



  1. Understanding how drought affects annual tree growth in tropical forests is of crucial importance to predict their response to climate change. Previous studies, mainly led in the Neotropics and in Southeast Asia, have yielded contradictory results which might be explained by differences in species studied, in the tree development stages considered, or by differences in other environmental factors than water availability.
  2. Here, we described the growth responses of functional groups of tree species to drought in a Central African semi-deciduous moist forest. Species groups were automatically defined using a finite mixture model, which grouped species according to their growth model parameters. The growth model considered the variation in species response to drought, and the effect of competition for resources and of tree development stage on growth. Groups were further characterized by species functional traits. Nine species groups were identified. They differed in their ability to acquire, use and conserve resources, as suggested by their differences in maximum growth rate, regeneration guild, maximum dbh, wood density and leaf habit. The species were organized along a light requirement gradient that here closely matched a broader continuum of plant strategies for resource use, from slow-growing shade-tolerant conservative species to fast-growing pioneer acquisitive species.
  3. Tree growth decreased with drought intensity, and species drought tolerance was found to be related to resource use strategy: slow-growing species using a conservative strategy were the least sensitive to variations in water availability, while fast-growing species using an acquisitive strategy were the most sensitive.
  4. Synthesis. Shade-tolerant species, characterized by a low potential growth rate and thus a conservative strategy of resource use, were found to be the least sensitive to drought. This supports the hypothesis of a single axis summarizing multiple traits that represents a general trade-off between the conservation and rapid acquisition of resources.