Variation in tropical forest growth rates: combined effects of functional group composition and resource availability

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Rates of tree growth in tropical forests reflect variation in life history strategies, contribute to the determination of species' distributional limits, set limits to timber harvesting and control the carbon balance of the stands. Here, we review the resources that limit tree growth at different temporal and spatial scales, and the different growth rates and responses of functional groups defined on the basis of regeneration strategy, maximum size, and species' associations with particular edaphic and climatic conditions.

Variation in soil water availability determines intra- and inter-annual patterns of growth within seasonal forests, whereas irradiance may have a more important role in aseasonal forests. Nutrient supply limits growth rates in montane forests and may determine spatial variation in growth of individual species in lowland forests. However, its role in determining spatial variation in stand-level growth rates is unclear. In terms of growth rate, we propose a functional classification of tropical tree species which contrasts inherently fast-growing, responsive species (pioneer, large-statured species), from slow-growing species that are less responsive to increasing resource availability (shade-bearers, small-statured species). In a semi-deciduous forest in Ghana, pioneers associated with high-rainfall forests with less fertile soils, had significantly lower growth rates than pioneers that are more abundant in low-rainfall forests with more fertile soils. These results match patterns found in seedling trials and suggest for pioneers that species' associations with particular environmental conditions are useful indicators of maximum growth rate.

The effects of variation in resource availability and of inherent differences between species on stand-level patterns of growth will not be independent if the functional group composition of tropical forests varies along resource gradients. We find that there is increasing evidence of such spatial shifts at both small and large scales in tropical forests. Quantifying these gradients is important for understanding spatial patterns in forest growth rates.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)21-36
Number of pages16
JournalPerspectives in plant ecology, evolution and systematics
Issue number1-2
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2003


  • irradiance
  • maximum size
  • nutrient supply
  • pioneer
  • regeneration groups
  • water availability
  • decidious tree-seedlings
  • neotropical rain-forest
  • mineral-nutrition
  • Puerto-Rico
  • lowland forest
  • soil fertility
  • life-history
  • dry forest
  • phosphorus fertilization
  • dipterocarp forest


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