Journal of Tropical Ecology

Research Article

Changes in tree species abundance in a Neotropical forest: impact of climate change

Richard Condita1, Stephen P. Hubbella1a2 and Robin B. Fostera1a3

a1 Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, Unit 0948, APO A A 34002-0948, USA; or Apartado 2072, Balboa, Ancón, Panamá

a2 Department of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior, Princeton University, Princeton, New Jersey 08544, USA

a3 Department of Botany, Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago, Illinois 60605, USA


The abundance of all tree and shrub species has been monitored for eight years in a 50 ha census plot in tropical moist forest in central Panama. Here we examine population trends of the 219 most numerous species in the plot, assessing the impact of a long-term drying trend. Population change was calculated as the mean rate of increase (or decrease) over eight years, considering either all stems ≥10 mm diameter at breast height (dbh) or just stems ≥100 mm dbh. For stems ≥10 mm, 40% of the species had mean growth rates <1% per year (either increasing or decreasing) and 12% had changes ≥5% per year. For stems ≥100 mm, the figures were 38% and 8%.

Species that specialize on the slopes of the plot, a moist microhabitat relative to the plateau, suffered significantly more declines in abundance than species that did not prefer slopes (stems ≥10 mm dbh). This pattern was due entirely to species of small stature: 91% of treelets and shrubs that were slope-specialists declined in abundance, but just 19% of non-slope treelets and shrubs declined. Among larger trees, slope and non-slope species fared equally. For stems ≥100 mm dbh, the slope effect vanished because there were few shrubs and treelets with stems ≥100 mm dbh. Another edaphic guild of species, those occurring preferentially in a small swamp in the centre of the plot, were no more likely to decline in abundance than non-swamp species, regardless of growth form. Species that preferentially colonize canopy gaps in the plot were slightly more likely to decrease in abundance than non-colonizing species (only for stems ≥10 mm dbh, not ≥100 mm). Despite this overall trend, however, several colonizing species had the most rapidly increasing populations in the plot.

The impact of a 25-year drying trend and an associated increase in the severity of the 4-month dry season is having an obvious impact on the BCI forest. At least 16 species of shrubs and treelets with affinities for moist microhabitats are headed for extinction in the plot. Presumably, these species invaded the forest during a wetter period prior to 1966. A severe drought of 1983 that caused unusually high tree mortality contributed to this trend, and may also have been responsible for sharp increases in abundance of a few gap-colonizers because it temporarily opened the forest canopy. The BCI forest is remarkably sensitive to a subtle climatic shift, yet we do not know whether this is typical for tropical forests because no other large-scale censuses exist for comparison.

(Accepted March 18 1995)