Hyperdominance in the Amazonian Tree Flora

ter Steege H. et al. Science 342, 1243092. doi: 10.1126/science.1243092

Introduction: Recent decades have seen a major international effort to inventory tree communities in the Amazon Basin and Guiana Shield (Amazonia), but the vast extent and record diversity of these  forests have hampered an understanding of basinwide patterns. To overcome this obstacle, we compiled and standardized species-level data on more than half a million trees in 1170 plots sampling all major lowland forest types to explore patterns of commonness, rarity, and richness. 

Methods: The ~6-million-km2 Amazonian lowlands were divided into 1° cells, and mean tree density was estimated for each cell by using a loess regression model that included no environmental data but had its basis exclusively in the geographic location of tree plots. A similar model, allied with a bootstrapping exercise to quantify sampling error, was used to generate estimated Amazon-wide abundances of the 4962 valid species in the data set. We estimated the total number of tree species in the Amazon by fi tting the mean rank-abundance data to Fisher’s log-series distribution.

Results: Our analyses suggest that lowland Amazonia harbors 3.9 × 1011 trees and ~16,000 tree species. We found 227 “hyperdominant” species (1.4% of the total) to be so common that together they account for half of all trees in Amazonia, whereas the rarest 11,000 species account for just 0.12% of trees. Most hyperdominants are habitat specialists that have large geographic ranges but are only dominant in one or two regions of the basin, and a median of 41% of trees in individual plots belong to hyperdominants. A disproportionate number of hyperdominants are palms, Myristicaceae, and Lecythidaceae.

Discussion: The fi nding that Amazonia is dominated by just 227 tree species implies that most biogeochemical cycling in the world’s largest tropical forest is performed by a tiny sliver of its diversity. The causes underlying hyperdominance in these species remain unknown. Both competitive superiority and widespread pre-1492 cultivation by humans are compelling hypotheses that deserve testing. Although the data suggest that spatial models can effectively forecast tree community composition and structure of unstudied sites in Amazonia, incorporating environmental data may yield substantial improvements. An appreciation of how thoroughly common species dominate the basin has the potential to simplify research in Amazonian biogeochemistry, ecology, and vegetation mapping. Such advances are urgently needed in light of the >10,000 rare, poorly known, and potentially threatened tree species in the Amazon.

More information on the Naturalis website

ATDN plots were also used in:

Malhado, A.C.M. et al. The Ecological Biogeography of Amazonia. Frontiers of biogeography 5: 103-112. http://escholarship.org/uc/item/9qw3j2v2 

Slik F.et al. Large trees drive forest aboveground biomass variation in moist lowland forests across the tropics. Global Ecology and Biogeography 22, 1261–1271. doi: 10.1111/geb.12092

Scratchpads developed and conceived by (alphabetical): Ed Baker, Katherine Bouton Alice Heaton Dimitris Koureas, Laurence Livermore, Dave Roberts, Simon Rycroft, Ben Scott, Vince Smith