Tropical forests are non-equilibrium ecosystems governed by interspecific competition based on universal 1/6 niche width
Tropical forests are mega-diverse ecosystems that display complex and non-equilibrium dynamics. However, theoretical approaches have largely focused on explaining steady-state behaviour and fitting snapshots of data. Here we show that local and niche interspecific competition can realistically and parsimoniously explain the observed non-equilibrium regime of permanent plots of nine tropical forests, in eight different countries. Our spatially-explicit model, besides predicting with accuracy the main biodiversity metrics for these plots, can also reproduce their dynamics. A central finding is that tropical tree species have a universal niche width of approximately 1/6 of the niche axis that echoes the observed widespread convergence in their functional traits enabling them to exploit similar resources and to coexist despite of having large niche overlap. This niche width yields an average ratio of 0.25 between interspecific and intraspecific competition that corresponds to an intermediate value between the extreme claims of the neutral model and the classical niche-based model of community assembly (where interspecific competition is dominant). In addition, our model can explain and yield observed spatial patterns that classical niche-based and neutral theories cannot.