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What controls tropical forest architecture? Testing environmental, structural and floristic drivers


  • These authors contributed jointly to this paper.

Correspondence: Lindsay Banin or Ted R. Feldpausch, School of Geography, University of Leeds, Leeds LS2 9JT, UK.

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To test the extent to which the vertical structure of tropical forests is determined by environment, forest structure or biogeographical history.




Using height and diameter data from 20,497 trees in 112 non-contiguous plots, asymptotic maximum height (H AM) and height–diameter relationships were computed with nonlinear mixed effects (NLME) models to: (1) test for environmental and structural causes of differences among plots, and (2) test if there were continental differences once environment and structure were accounted for; persistence of differences may imply the importance of biogeography for vertical forest structure. NLME analyses for floristic subsets of data (only/excluding Fabaceae and only/excluding Dipterocarpaceae individuals) were used to examine whether family-level patterns revealed biogeographical explanations of cross-continental differences.


H AM and allometry were significantly different amongst continents. H AM was greatest in Asian forests (58.3 ± 7.5 m, 95% CI), followed by forests in Africa (45.1 ± 2.6 m), America (35.8 ± 6.0 m) and Australia (35.0 ± 7.4 m), and height–diameter relationships varied similarly; for a given diameter, stems were tallest in Asia, followed by Africa, America and Australia. Precipitation seasonality, basal area, stem density, solar radiation and wood density each explained some variation in allometry and H AM yet continental differences persisted even after these were accounted for. Analyses using floristic subsets showed that significant continental differences in H AM and allometry persisted in all cases.

Main conclusions

Tree allometry and maximum height are altered by environmental conditions, forest structure and wood density. Yet, even after accounting for these, tropical forest architecture varies significantly from continent to continent. The greater stature of tropical forests in Asia is not directly determined by the dominance of the family Dipterocarpaceae, as on average non-dipterocarps are equally tall. We hypothesise that dominant large-statured families create conditions in which only tall species can compete, thus perpetuating a forest dominated by tall individuals from diverse families.