Counting niches: Abundance-by-trait patterns reveal niche partitioning in a Neotropical forest
Tropical forests challenge us to understand biodiversity, as numerous seemingly similar species persist on only a handful of shared resources. Recent ecological theory posits that biodiversity is sustained by a combination of species differences reducing interspecific competition and species similarities increasing time to competitive exclusion. Together, these mechanisms counterintuitively predict that competing species should cluster by traits, in contrast with traditional expectations of trait overdispersion. Here, we show for the first time that trees in a tropical forest exhibit a clustering pattern. In a 50‐ha plot on Barro Colorado Island in Panama, species abundances exhibit clusters in two traits connected to light capture strategy, suggesting that competition for light structures community composition. Notably, we find four clusters by maximum height, quantitatively supporting the classical grouping of Neotropical woody plants into shrubs, understory, midstory, and canopy layers.