Differing Life History Characteristics Support Coexistence of Tree Soil Generalist and Specialist Species in Tropical Rain Forests

Julia Born, Andrea R. Pluess, David F. R. P. Burslem, Reuben Nilus, Colin R. Maycock, Jaboury Ghazoul*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

21 Citations (Scopus)


Niche differentiation is a prominent mechanism for explaining tree species coexistence in tropical rain forests. Theory predicts that species that are specialized on a set of environmental conditions should competitively exclude generalists in those conditions, and that environmental heterogeneity allows the coexistence of many different species based on niche specialization. Yet, many tropical tree species of the family Dipterocarpaceae have broadly similar habitat preferences, with some occurring widely across several soil types. These soil generalists clearly persist despite the presence of other dipterocarp species that show clear soil specialization. We evaluate comparative seedling performance (growth and survival) of six Shorea species (Dipterocarpaceae) which differ in their adult tree habitat associations within the Sepilok Forest Reserve (Borneo, Malaysia). We tested the hypothesis that seedlings of species associated with a particular soil type perform better on that soil type than seedlings of soil generalist species, with generalists in turn performing better than specialists on a different soil type. We conducted a reciprocal transplant experiment including two soil types (alluvial and mudstone) and two light treatments (gap and understory). The soils differed in soil acidity, Al and P concentration. Observed species-specific differences in seedling responses to soil, light, and occasional flooding events could partially explain observed adult distribution, although not all species could be fully differentiated along these axes. Other trade-offs, such as investment in defense against herbivores and tolerance to soil waterlogging, may play additional roles in explaining coexistence of these species.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)58-68
Number of pages11
Issue number1
Early online date6 Jan 2014
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2014

Bibliographical note

We thank the Economic Planning Unit of the Federal Government of Malaysia and the Forest Research Centre in Sepilok for kindly granting permission to conduct research in Malaysia and SFR. We thank the staff of the Forest Research Centre in Sepilokand the phytochemistry laboratory for the analyses of the soil samples. Many field assistants are acknowledged for their valuable help in the data collection process. Christoph Tellenbach is thanked for his help with the survival statistics, Thomas Hahn for the creation of the adult tree distribution maps. This work was supported by ETH Research Grant TH-03 07-2.


  • Dipterocarpaceae
  • Life history characteristics
  • Niche theory
  • Relative growth rate
  • Shorea
  • Survival
  • Topography
  • Tropical rain forest


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