Ecology Letters (2011) 14: 1211–1219
Understanding the link between biodiversity and ecosystem functioning (BEF) is pivotal in the context of global biodiversity loss. Yet, long-term effects have been explored only weakly, especially for forests, and no clear evidence has been found regarding the underlying mechanisms. We explore the long-term relationship between diversity and productivity using a forest succession model. Extensive simulations show that tree species richness promotes productivity in European temperate forests across a large climatic gradient, mostly through strong complementarity between species. We show that this biodiversity effect emerges because increasing species richness promotes higher diversity in shade tolerance and growth ability, which results in forests responding faster to small-scale mortality events. Our study generalises results from short-term experiments in grasslands to forest ecosystems and demonstrates that competition for light alone induces a positive effect of biodiversity on productivity, thus providing a new angle for explaining BEF relationships.