• Present address: Center for Tropical Conservation, Box 90381, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina 27708-0381 USA. E-mail:


Amazonian forests are the largest and most diverse in the tropics, and much of the mystery surrounding their ecology can be traced to attempts to understand them through tiny local inventories. In this paper we bring together a large number of such inventories scattered across immense areas of western Amazonia in order to address simple questions about the distribution and abundance of tropical tree species in lowland terra firme forests there. The goal is to describe patterns of commonness and rarity at local (1 ha), landscape (∼104 km2), and regional (>106 km2) scales, and to fuse the results into a more complete picture of how tropical tree communities are structured. We present estimates of landscape-scale densities for ∼1400 taxa, based on data from tree plots scattered over large tracts of terra firme forest in eastern Ecuador and southeastern Peru. A database of morphological, ecological, and other traits of >1000 of these species compiled from the taxonomic literature is then used to explore how species that are common in the inventories differ from species that are rare.

Although most species show landscape-scale densities of <1 individual/ha, most trees in both forests belong to a small set of ubiquitous common species. These common species combine high frequency with high local abundance, forming predictable oligarchies that dominate several thousand square kilometers of forest at each site.

The common species comprising these oligarchies are a nonrandom subset of the two floras. At both sites a disproportionate number of common species are concentrated in the families Arecaceae, Moraceae, Myristicaceae, and Violaceae, and large-statured tree species are more likely to be common than small ones. Nearly a third of the 150 most common tree species in the Ecuadorean forest are also found among the 150 most common tree species in the Peruvian forest. For the 254 tree species shared by the two data sets, abundance in Ecuador is positively and significantly correlated with abundance ∼1400 km away in Peru.

These findings challenge popular depictions of Amazonian vegetation as a small-scale mosaic of unpredictable composition and structure. Instead, they provide additional evidence that tropical tree communities are not qualitatively different from their temperate counterparts, where a few common species concentrated in a few higher taxa can dominate immense areas of forest. We hypothesize that most Amazonian forests are dominated at large scales by oligarchies similar in nature to the ones observed in Ecuador and Peru, and we argue that the patterns are more indicative of regulation of relative abundances by ecological factors than of nonequilibrium chance-based dynamics. The paper concludes with a discussion of the practical applications of predictable oligarchies over large areas of unexplored forest.