Habitat filtering across tree life stages in tropical forest communities Habitat filtering across tree life stages in tropical forest communities
Tropical tree communities are shaped by local-scale habitat heterogeneity in the form of topographic and edaphic variation, but the life-history stage at which habitat associations develop remains poorly understood. This is due, in part, to the fact that previous studies have not accounted for the widely disparate sample sizes (number of stems) that result when trees are divided into size classes. We demonstrate that the observed habitat structuring of a community is directly related to the number of individuals in the community. We then compare the relative importance of habitat heterogeneity to tree community structure for saplings, juveniles and adult trees within seven large (24–50 ha) tropical forest dynamics plots while controlling for sample size. Changes in habitat structuring through tree life stages were small and inconsistent among life stages and study sites. Where found, these differences were an order of magnitude smaller than the findings of previous studies that did not control for sample size. Moreover, community structure and composition were very similar among tree sub-communities of different life stages. We conclude that the structure of these tropical tree communities is established by the time trees are large enough to be included in the census (1 cm diameter at breast height), which indicates that habitat filtering occurs during earlier life stages.