1. The analysis of species distribution patterns along environmental gradients is important for understanding the diversity and ecology of plants and species responses to climate change, but detailed data are surprisingly scarce for the tropics.
2. Here, we analyse the distribution of 100 woody species over 220 1-ha forest plots distributed over an area of c. 160 000 km2, across large environmental gradients in lowland Bolivia and evaluate the relative importance of climate and soils in shaping species distribution addressing four multivariate environmental axes (rainfall amount and distribution, temperature, soil fertility and soil texture).
3. Although species abundance was positively related to species frequency (the number of plots in which the species is found), this relationship was rather weak, which challenges the view that most tropical forests are dominated at large scales by a few common species.
4. Species responded clearly to environmental gradients, and for most of the species (65%), climatic and soil conditions could explain most of the variation in occurrence (R2 > 0.50), which challenges the idea that most tropical tree species are habitat generalists.
5. Climate was a stronger driver of species distribution than soils; 91% of the species were affected by rainfall (distribution), 72% by temperature, 47% by soil fertility and 44% by soil texture. In contrast to our expectation, few species showed a typical unimodal response to the environmental gradients.
6. Synthesis. Tropical tree species specialize for different parts of the environmental gradients, and climate is a stronger driver of species distribution than soils. Because climate change scenarios predict increases in annual temperature and a stronger dry season for tropical forests, we may expect potentially large shifts in the distribution of tropical trees.