• Borneo;
  • edaphic gradient;
  • growth rate;
  • life-history trade-offs;
  • mixed dipterocarp forest;
  • mortality rate;
  • soil resources;
  • tree demography;
  • tropical rain forest


  • 1
    Interspecific relationships between fundamental demographic rates, often called demographic trade-offs, emerge from constraints within individuals related to morphology, physiology and resource allocation. Plant species that grow fast in high light usually have high mortality in shade, and this well-established relationship in part defines a species’ successional niche. More generally, this relationship represents a trade-off between a species’ ability to grow quickly to exploit abundant resources vs. avoiding mortality when resources are less plentiful, but few studies have described this demographic trade-off with respect to environmental factors other than light.
  • 2
    Using demographic data from 960 tree species in Bornean rain forest, we examined the evidence for an interspecific demographic trade-off between fast growth and low mortality and its variation among habitats defined by variation in soil fertility and moisture. Such a trade-off could contribute to sorting of tree species among habitats and partly explain the striking patterns of species’ edaphic associations in this and other forests.
  • 3
    We found strong evidence for this demographic trade-off, both within the same habitat and when growth on edaphically rich habitats was compared with mortality on a habitat with lower below-ground resource availability.
  • 4
    The slope of the growth-mortality relationship varied among habitats, being steepest on the habitat lowest in below-ground resources. For species with the fastest potential growth rates, mortality was higher on this habitat than at comparable growth rates on the three more edaphically rich habitats, providing a possible mechanism by which fast-growing species may be eliminated from the poorest habitat. Adaptations for fast growth may entail a greater mortality risk, if inherently fast-growing species fail to maintain a positive C-balance when below-ground resources are scarce.
  • 5
    Conversely, for species with the slowest potential growth rates, the highest species’ mortality rates occurred on the habitats with greatest below-ground resource availability, implying that slow-growing species may have a competitive disadvantage in resource-rich environments.
  • 6
    Synthesis. Differences among habitats in the steepness of this trade-off may sort species into different habitats along this edaphic gradient, whereas on the same soil, this demographic trade-off could facilitate coexistence of at least some species in this forest. Thus, by generating emergent demographic trade-offs that vary along resource gradients, plant life-history strategies can influence species diversity and distribution.