ABSTRACT Tropical dry forests (TDFs) host a large diversity of tree species but little is known of potential mechanisms that contribute to its maintenance. Given the paramount importance of water availability in such forests, tree species would be expected to show nonrandom patterns along water availability gradients, as well as differential individual species responses. In this work we explored whether that was true for 50 dominant tree species. Within a total area of 5.2 ha, divided into 26 transects each with ten 20 × 10 m plots, we registered presence–absence of these tree species with diameter at breast height ≥5 cm. We assessed the response of trees to four environmental variables differentially related to water availability in three steps: (1) identifying the shape of the response to individual environmental variables, (2) testing for artifacts in previous patterns due to spatial autocorrelation of presence–absence, and (3) identifying the environmental variable or combination of variables that best explained the pattern. We then classified the species with respect to their probability of occurrence along the gradient, and explored which components of the water cycle were likely to be driving the observed patterns. We found that 14 species were generalists, 16 drought tolerant, 9 intermediate, 3 water demanding and 8 showed mixed responses. Lateral flow and access to ground water most likely underlie such patterns. Our results confirm the key role played by water availability in tree species distribution. Water-related niche differentiation seems to be crucial for maintaining the high diversity of this TDF. Abstract in Spanish is available at http://www.blackwell-synergy.com/loi/btp.
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