1.Because of its mechanical properties, wood density may affect the way that trees expand their stem and crown to exploit favourable light conditions in a mechanically stable way. From engineering theory and wood density properties, it is predicted that in terms of biomass investment, low-density wood is more efficient for vertical stem expansion, while high-density wood is more efficient for horizontal branch expansion. So far, these predictions have rarely been tested by empirical studies.
2.We tested these predictions for 145 co-occurring tree species in a Malaysian tropical rainforest. For each species, we selected trees across a broad size range and measured architectural dimensions (stem diameter, height of the lowest foliage and crown width). We used a hierarchical Bayesian model to estimate species-specific allometric relationships between architectural dimensions including estimated stem biomass. Then, we examined correlations between species wood density and estimated architectural variables at standardized heights.
3.When species were compared at standardized tree heights, wood density correlated negatively with stem diameter and positively with stem biomass at most reference heights. This indicates that species with low wood density produce thicker stems but at lower biomass costs. Wood density correlated positively with crown width and negatively with height of the lowest foliage, which indicates that high wood density species have wider and deeper crowns than low wood density species. These relationships were maintained at most reference heights. However, the relationship with crown width was nonsignificant above 18 m height. This may reflect large plastic response of lateral crown expansion to a local condition.
4. Wood density explains the trade-off between effective vertical stem expansion and horizontal crown expansion across co-occurring tropical tree species. Such mechanical constraints characterize the difference in tree architecture between low wood density species that show an efficient height expansion to attain better light conditions in the exposed canopy and high wood density species that show an efficient horizontal crown expansion to enhance current light interception and persistence in the shaded forest understorey. Our study thus suggests that the mechanical constraints set by wood density contribute to the co-existence of species differing in architecture and light capture strategy.