Abstract. We propose and test a classification of plant functional types for tropical trees based on demography, growth form, phenology, and moisture requirements, using data from a 50-ha forest dynamics plot in Panama. Correlations among demographic variables for individual species - mortality, growth, and the tendency to colonize light gaps - were strong, and a single principal component (PC) accounted for a large fraction of the demographic variability. Most species - shade-tolerants - were clustered at the low end of the PC axis (low growth, low mortality), while the rest were continuously distributed over a wide range. Three demographic guilds could be defined from scores on this axis: we call these pioneer, building phase, and shade-tolerant trees, following earlier terminology.
Leaf lifetime correlated negatively with the demographic axis, and there was a weak relationship between demography and moisture-preference: no species with high demographic scores also had high moisture requirements. There was no significant relationship between deciduousness and the demographic axis, but deciduousness was negatively correlated with leaf lifetime and moisture index. Altogether, 11 different combinations of demographic variables, deciduousness, moisture needs, and growth form (canopy vs. understory species) were identified.
We evaluated how these functional types changed in abundance between 1982 and 1995. Because of a recent run of dry years and long dry seasons, we predicted that deciduous species, canopy species, pioneers, and drought-tolerant species would be increasing at the expense of their counterparts. Only one aspect of this prediction was borne out: moisture- demanding species declined sharply in abundance relative to drought-tolerant species. Neither deciduousness nor growth form was associated with population change, and pioneer species declined in abundance more often than shade-tolerants. The overall structure of the forest - the density of deciduous, pioneer, and understory species - did not change much, but the decline of the moisture-demanding guild indicates that a change in composition is preceding a structural change.