1. In tropical forests, species distribution patterns may be strongly context-dependent owing to local stochasticity of recruitment and/or to the specific history and environment of each site. Recent studies have reported, however, that the degree of spatial aggregation of tropical tree species is partly determined by some species traits irrespectively of site conditions, at least at a very local scale (<200 m).
2. Here, we used standardized large-scale forest inventories of five Central African tropical forests (9670 0.5-ha plots spread over 5550 km²) to quantify the spatial aggregation of 106 tropical tree species at larger spatial scales. For this purpose, we developed a new statistic to quantify the respective contributions of different spatial scales to the aggregation patterns, and we tested whether patterns were consistent across sites. We finally asked whether species characteristics related to dispersal ability, to response to disturbances and to biogeographical range could significantly explain aggregation patterns.
3. Although aggregation patterns varied substantially among sites within each species, they displayed inter-site consistencies (21–24% of the total variance explained by species identity) at the local scale (0.2–1 km) and at the mesoscale (1–10 km) but not at the landscape scale (>10 km). At the two former scales, upper taxonomical levels (family and/or order) significantly explained variation in the degree of species aggregation, while at the landscape scale, aggregation was entirely contingent on the site considered. Few species characteristics, except dispersal syndromes and wood density, were able to significantly explain aggregation patterns.
4. Synthesis. One of our most striking results is the high context dependence of species aggregation patterns, whatever the spatial scale considered. However, we showed that species distribution patterns can be predicted, to an extent, at spatial scales much larger than previously investigated in this context. Such patterns may be explained by traits displaying phylogenetic conservatism (such as dispersal syndrome), but further studies are necessary to clearly identify them.