The tropical forests of Borneo and Amazonia may each contain more tree species diversity in half a square kilometre than do all the temperate forests of Europe, North America, and Asia combined. Biologists have long been fascinated by this disparity, using it to investigate potential drivers of biodiversity. Latitudinal variation in many of these drivers is expected to create geographic differences in ecological and evolutionary processes, and evidence increasingly shows that tropical ecosystems have higher rates of diversification, clade origination, and clade dispersal. However, there is currently no evidence to link gradients in ecological processes within communities at a local scale directly to the geographic gradient in biodiversity. Here, we show geographic variation in the storage effect, an ecological mechanism that reduces the potential for competitive exclusion more strongly in the tropics than it does in temperate and boreal zones, decreasing the ratio of interspecific-to-intraspecific competition by 0.25% for each degree of latitude that an ecosystem is located closer to the Equator. Additionally, we find evidence that latitudinal variation in climate underpins these differences; longer growing seasons in the tropics reduce constraints on the seasonal timing of reproduction, permitting lower recruitment synchrony between species and thereby enhancing niche partitioning through the storage effect. Our results demonstrate that the strength of the storage effect, and therefore its impact on diversity within communities, varies latitudinally in association with climate. This finding highlights the importance of biotic interactions in shaping geographic diversity patterns, and emphasizes the need to understand the mechanisms underpinning ecological processes in greater detail than has previously been appreciated.
In Amazonian tropical forests, recent studies have reported increases in aboveground biomass and in primary productivity, as well as shifts in plant species composition favouring fast-growing species over slow-growing ones. This pervasive alteration of mature tropical forests was attributed to global environmental change, such as an increase in atmospheric CO2 concentration, nutrient deposition, temperature, drought frequency, and/or irradiance. We used standardized, repeated measurements of over 2 million trees in ten large (16-52 ha each) forest plots on three continents to evaluate the generality of these findings across tropical forests. Aboveground biomass increased at seven of our ten plots, significantly so at four plots, and showed a large decrease at a single plot. Carbon accumulation pooled across sites was significant (+0.24 MgC ha(-1) y(-1), 95% confidence intervals [0.07, 0.39] MgC ha(-1) y(-1)), but lower than reported previously for Amazonia. At three sites for which we had data for multiple census intervals, we found no concerted increase in biomass gain, in conflict with the increased productivity hypothesis. Over all ten plots, the fastest-growing quartile of species gained biomass (+0.33 [0.09, 0.55] % y(-1)) compared with the tree community as a whole (+0.15 % y(-1)); however, this significant trend was due to a single plot. Biomass of slow-growing species increased significantly when calculated over all plots (+0.21 [0.02, 0.37] % y(-1)), and in half of our plots when calculated individually. Our results do not support the hypothesis that fast-growing species are consistently increasing in dominance in tropical tree communities. Instead, they suggest that our plots may be simultaneously recovering from past disturbances and affected by changes in resource availability. More long-term studies are necessary to clarify the contribution of global change to the functioning of tropical forests.