Explaining the mechanisms that produce the enormous diversity within and between tropical tree communities is a pressing challenge for plant community ecologists. Mechanistic hypotheses range from niche-based deterministic to dispersal-based stochastic models. Strong tests of these hypotheses require detailed information regarding the functional strategies of species. A few tropical studies to date have examined trait dispersion within individual forest plots using species trait means in order to ask whether coexisting species tend to be more or less functionally similar than expected given a null model. The present work takes an alternative approach by: (i) explicitly incorporating population-level trait variability; and (ii) quantifying the functional beta diversity in a series of 15 tropical forest plots arrayed along an elevational gradient. The results show a strong pattern of decay in community functional similarity with elevation. These observed patterns of functional beta diversity are shown to be highly non-random and support a deterministic model of tropical tree community assembly and turnover.
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