Plant functional traits and the distribution of West African rain forest trees along the rainfall gradient

S.K. Maharjan, L. Poorter, M. Holmgren, F. Bongers, J.J. Wieringa, W.D. Hawthorne

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

39 Citations (Scopus)


Plant morphological and physiological traits affect the way plants tolerate environmental stresses and therefore play an important role in shaping species distribution patterns in relation to environmental gradients. Despite our growing knowledge on the role of functional traits in structuring plant communities, few studies have tested their importance at large scales in the wet tropics. Here, we describe the distribution patterns of the most important West African rain forest timber species along the regional rainfall gradient and relate them to their functional traits. We found that the distribution patterns of 25 out of the 31 studied species (80%) were significantly related to mean annual rainfall. Shade tolerance and drought resistance were identified as the main strategy axes of variation. Wood density and leaf deciduousness emerged as the best predictor traits of species position along the rainfall gradient, explaining respectively 32 and 15 percent of the variation. Species traits tended to show stronger relationships with estimated optimum annual rainfall for each species than to the extreme rainfall conditions where they occur. The significant role of rainfall in shaping timber species distribution and the strong relationships between species traits and rainfall indicate that changes in climate, especially declining rainfall, could have strong effects on species composition and abundance in these tropical forests
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)552-561
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - 2011


  • life-history variation
  • relative growth-rate
  • tropical forest
  • species distributions
  • shade-tolerance
  • biomass allocation
  • soil fertility
  • canopy trees
  • woody-plants
  • seed size


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