, Volume 136, Issue 2, pp 193-204

Does flood tolerance explain tree species distribution in tropical seasonally flooded habitats?

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In the tropics, seasonally flooded forests (SFF) harbor fewer tree species than terra firme (i.e. non-flooded) forests. The low species diversity of tropical flooded forests has been ascribed to the paucity of species with adaptations to tolerate flooding. To test the hypothesis that flooding is the only factor restricting most species from SFF, we compared plant morphological and physiological responses to flooding in 2-month old seedlings of 6 species common to SFF and 12 species common to terra firme forests. Although flooding impaired growth, total biomass, maximum root length and stomatal conductance in most species, responses varied greatly and were species-specific. For example, after 90 days, flooding reduced leaf area growth by 10–50% in all species, except in Tabebuia, a common species from non-flooded habitats. Similarly, flooding had a 5–45% negative effect on total biomass for all species, except in 1 SFF and 1 terra firme species both of which had more biomass under flooding. A principal component analysis, using the above responses to flooding, provided no evidence that SFF and terra firme species differed in their responses to flooding. Flooding also caused reductions in root growth for most species. Rooting depth and root: shoot ratios were significantly less affected by flooding in SFF than in terra firme species. Although flood tolerance is critical for survival in flooded habitats, we hypothesize that responses to post-flooding events such as drought might be equally important in seasonal habitats. Therefore, we suggest that the ability to grow roots under anoxia might be critical in predicting success in inundated habitats that also experience a strong dry season.