Convergent elevation trends in canopy chemical traits of tropical forests

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71 Scopus citations


The functional biogeography of tropical forests is expressed in foliar chemicals that are key physiologically based predictors of plant adaptation to changing environmental conditions including climate. However, understanding the degree to which environmental filters sort the canopy chemical characteristics of forest canopies remains a challenge. Here, we report on the elevation and soil-type dependence of forest canopy chemistry among 75 compositionally and environmentally distinct forests in nine regions, with a total of 7819 individual trees representing 3246 species collected, identified and assayed for foliar traits. We assessed whether there are consistent relationships between canopy chemical traits and both elevation and soil type, and evaluated the general role of phylogeny in mediating patterns of canopy traits within and across communities. Chemical trait variation and partitioning suggested a general model based on four interconnected findings. First, geographic variation at the soil-Order level, expressing broad changes in fertility, underpins major shifts in foliar phosphorus (P) and calcium (Ca). Second, elevation-dependent shifts in average community leaf dry mass per area (LMA), chlorophyll, and carbon allocation (including nonstructural carbohydrates) are most strongly correlated with changes in foliar Ca. Third, chemical diversity within communities is driven by differences between species rather than by plasticity within species. Finally, elevation- and soil-dependent changes in N, LMA and leaf carbon allocation are mediated by canopy compositional turnover, whereas foliar P and Ca are driven more by changes in site conditions than by phylogeny. Our findings have broad implications for understanding the global ecology of humid tropical forests, and their functional responses to changing climate.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2216-2227
Number of pages12
JournalGlobal change biology
Issue number6
StatePublished - Jun 1 2016
Externally publishedYes


  • Chemical phylogeny
  • Functional biogeography
  • Functional traits
  • Leaf traits
  • Plant traits

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Global and Planetary Change
  • Environmental Chemistry
  • Ecology
  • General Environmental Science


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