Prevalence of phylogenetic clustering at multiple scales in an African rain forest tree community



  1. In highly diverse ecosystems, such as tropical forests, the relative importance of mechanisms underlying species coexistence (e.g. habitat filtering, competitive exclusion, neutral dynamics) is still poorly known and probably varies depending on spatial and phylogenetic scales.
  2. Here, we develop new approaches for dissecting simultaneously the phylogenetic structure of communities at different phylogenetic depths and spatial scales. We tested with simulations that our method is able to disentangle overdispersion and clustering effects occurring at contrasted phylogenetic depths.
  3. We applied our approaches to a 50 ha Forest Dynamic Plot located in Korup National Park (Cameroon) where 329,000 tree stems ≥ 1 cm in diameter were identified and mapped, and using a newly generated dated molecular phylogenetic tree based on 2 plastid loci (rbcL and matK), including 272 species from Korup (97% of the individuals).
  4. Significant patterns of phylogenetic turnover were detected across 20 × 20 m2 quadrats at most spatial scales, with higher turnover between topographic habitats than within habitats, indicating the prevalence of habitat filtering processes. Spatial phylogenetic clustering was detected over the entire range of phylogenetic depths indicating that competitive exclusion does not generate a pattern of phylogenetic overdispersion at this scale, even at a shallow phylogenetic depth.
  5. Using an individual-based approach, we also show that closely related species tended to aggregate spatially until a scale of 1 m. However, the signal vanishes at smaller distance, suggesting that competitive exclusion can balance the impact of environmental filtering at a very fine spatial scale.
  6. Synthesis. Using new methods to characterize the structure of communities across spatial and phylogenetic scales, we inferred the relative importance of the mechanisms underlying species coexistence in tropical forests. Our analysis confirms that environmental filtering processes are key in the structuring of natural communities at most spatial scales. Although negative-density tends to limit coexistence of closely related species at very short distance (<1 m), its influence is largely veiled by environmental filtering at larger distances.