Tropical tree size distributions are remarkably consistent despite differences in the environments that support them. With data analysis and theory, we found a simple and biologically intuitive hypothesis to explain this property, which is the foundation of forest dynamics modeling and carbon storage estimates. After a disturbance, new individuals in the forest gap grow quickly in full sun until they begin to overtop one another. The two-dimensional space-filling of the growing crowns of the tallest individuals relegates a group of losing, slow-growing individuals to the understory. Those left in the understory follow a power-law size distribution, the scaling of which depends on only the crown area-to-diameter allometry exponent: a well-conserved value across tropical forests.
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