Determinants of mortality across a tropical lowland rainforest community


N. Rüger, UFZ, Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research – UFZ, Dept of Ecological Modelling, Permoserstr. 15, DE–04318 Leipzig, Germany. E-mail:


Tree mortality is an important process determining forest dynamics. However, in species-rich tropical forests it is largely unknown, how species differ in their response of mortality to resource availability and individual condition. We use a hierarchical Bayesian approach to quantify the impact of light availability, tree size and past growth on mortality of 284 woody species in a 50-ha long-term forest census plot in Barro Colorado Island, Panama. Light reaching each individual tree was estimated from yearly vertical censuses of vegetation density. Across the community, 78% of the species showed increasing mortality with increasing light. Considering species individually, just 29 species showed a significant response to light, all with increasing mortality at high light. Past growth had a significant impact on all but three species, with higher growth leading to lower mortality. For the majority of species, mortality decreased sharply with diameter in saplings, then levelled off or increased slightly towards the maximum diameter of the species. Diameter had the biggest impact on mortality, followed by past growth and finally light availability. Our results challenge many previous reports of higher mortality in shade, and we suggest that it is crucial to control for size effects when assessing the impact of environmental conditions on mortality.