Functional traits of tropical trees and lianas explain spatial structure across multiple scales

Adam Thomas Clark, Matteo Detto, Helene C. Muller-Landau, Stefan A. Schnitzer, S. Joseph Wright, Richard Condit, Stephen P. Hubbell

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

26 Scopus citations


Dispersal and density dependence are major determinants of spatial structure, population dynamics and coexistence for tropical forest plants. However, because these two processes can jointly influence spatial structure at similar scales, analysing spatial patterns to separate and quantify them is often difficult. Species functional traits can be useful indicators of dispersal and density dependence. However, few methods exist for linking functional traits to quantitative estimates of these processes that can be compared across multiple species. We analysed static spatial patterns of woody plant populations in the 50 ha Forest Dynamics Plot on Barro Colorado Island, Panama with methods that distinguished scale-specific differences in species aggregation. We then tested how these differences related to seven functional traits: growth form, dispersal syndrome, tree canopy layer, adult stature, seed mass, wood density and shade tolerance. Next, we fit analytically tractable spatial moment models to the observed spatial structure of species characterized by similar trait values, which allowed us to estimate relationships of functional traits with the spatial scale of dispersal, and the spatial scale and intensity of negative density dependence. Our results confirm that lianas are more aggregated than trees, and exhibit increased aggregation within canopy gaps. For trees, increased seed mass, wood density and shade tolerance were associated with less intense negative density dependence, while higher canopy layers and increased stature were associated with decreased aggregation and better dispersal. Spatial structure for trees was also strongly determined by dispersal syndrome. Averaged across all spatial scales, zoochory was more effective than wind dispersal, which was more effective than explosive dispersal. However, at intermediate scales, zoochory was associated with more aggregation than wind dispersal, potentially because of differences in short-distance dispersal and the intensity of negative density dependence. Synthesis. We develop new tools for identifying significant associations between functional traits and spatial structure, and for linking these associations to quantitative estimates of dispersal scale and the strength and scale of density dependence. Our results help clarify how these processes influence woody plant species on Barro Colorado, and demonstrate how these tools can be applied to other sites and systems.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)795-806
Number of pages12
JournalJournal of Ecology
Issue number2
StatePublished - Mar 2018
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Ecology
  • Plant Science


  • aggregation
  • Barro Colorado Island
  • plant population and community dynamics
  • spatial analysis
  • spatial moment model
  • species functional traits
  • tropical forest dynamics
  • wavelet variance


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