Prediction of neotropical tree and liana species richness from soil and climatic data

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Biodiversity and Conservation


We present an analysis of local species richness in neotropical forests, based on a number of 0.1 ha samples of woody plants collected by the late Alwyn Gentry. For each of 69 forests, soils were analysed and climatic data were collated. Using transformed independent variables and interaction terms, multiple regression equations were developed that explained the greatest possible amount of variation in species richness, and the best equations were selected on the basis of regression diagnostics. The best models are presented for (a) all neotropical forests, (b) forests west of the Andes (transandean) and (c) east of the Andes (cisandean), and for various subsets based on elevation and annual rainfall. For the whole dataset, and for most subsets, annual rainfall and rainfall seasonality were the most important variables for explaining species richness. Soil variables were correlated with precipitation — drier forests have more nutrient-rich soils. After the inclusion of rainfall variables, available soil nutrient concentrations contributed little to explaining or accounting for additional variation in species numbers, indicating that tropical forest species richness is surprisingly independent of soil quality. The results are consistent with the hypothesis that plants in mature tropical forests may obtain nutrients through the process of direct cycling, in which mineral nutrients are extracted from litterfall before they enter the soil. The strong relationship between community species richness and rainfall patterns has implications for biodiversity conservation. Wet forests with an ample year-round moisture supply harbour the greatest number of woody plant species and should be a focus of conservation efforts.