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The interspecific growth–mortality trade-off is not a general framework for tropical forest community structure

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Resource allocation within trees is a zero-sum game. Unavoidable trade-offs dictate that allocation to growth-promoting functions curtails other functions, generating a gradient of investment in growth versus survival along which tree species align, known as the interspecific growth–mortality trade-off. This paradigm is widely accepted but not well established. Using demographic data for 1,111 tree species across ten tropical forests, we tested the generality of the growth–mortality trade-off and evaluated its underlying drivers using two species-specific parameters describing resource allocation strategies: tolerance of resource limitation and responsiveness of allocation to resource access. Globally, a canonical growth–mortality trade-off emerged, but the trade-off was strongly observed only in less disturbance-prone forests, which contained diverse resource allocation strategies. Only half of disturbance-prone forests, which lacked tolerant species, exhibited the trade-off. Supported by a theoretical model, our findings raise questions about whether the growth–mortality trade-off is a universally applicable organizing framework for understanding tropical forest community structure.

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Fig. 1: Conceptual model of the between- and within-species relationships between mortality and growth for trees.
Fig. 2: Within-species relationships between individual mortality and prior growth for six exemplar tropical tree species.
Fig. 3: The interspecific growth–mortality trade-off for 1,097 woody tree species in ten forests.
Fig. 4: Variation among forests in tree species’ tolerance and responsiveness strategies.
Fig. 5: Analysis of a theoretical demographic allocation model showing the consequences of variation in resource allocation strategies for the growth–mortality trade-off.

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This research was conducted during Analytical Workshops held by the Smithsonian Center for Tropical Forest Science ForestGEO programme, supported by the National Science Foundation of the United States, grant no. DEB-1046113. S.E.R. was supported by a Faculty Development Leave Fellowship from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln and a Short-Term Fellowship from the Japan Society of the Promotion of Science. We thank A. Zera for insightful discussions of trade-offs and constructive comments on an earlier version of this manuscript. This work was generated using data from the Center for Tropical Forest Science/Smithsonian Institution Forest Global Earth Observatory network ( Individual plot data collection and management and authors were supported by grants from the National Science Foundation of the United States (grant nos EF-1137366, BSR-9015961, DEB-1516066, BSR-8811902, DEB-9411973, DEB-008538, DEB-0218039 and DEB-0620910), the Council of Agriculture of Taiwan (grant nos 93AS-2.4.2-FI-G1(2) and 94AS-11.1.2-FI-G1(1)), the Ministry of Science and Technology of Taiwan (grant nos NSC92-3114-B002-009, NSC98-2313-B-029-001-MY3 and NSC98-2321-B-029-002), the Forestry Bureau of Taiwan (grant nos 92-00-2-06 and TFBM-960226), the Taiwan Forestry Research Institute (grant no. 97 AS- 7.1.1.F1-G1), the Mellon Foundation, the International Institute of Tropical Forestry of the USDA Forest Service, the University of Puerto Rico, the 1923 Fund, the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, the German Academic Exchange Services (DAAD), Sarawak Forest Department, Sarawak Forestry Corporation, Global Environment Research Fund of the Ministry of the Environment Japan (grant no. D-0901), Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (grant no. 17H04602), The Wildlife Conservation Society, the Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature, the Thai National Parks Wildlife and Plant Conservation Department, the Center for Tropical Forest Science Arnold Arboretum Asia Program, the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, and the Luquillo Long Term Ecological Research programme (LuqLTER). We also thank the hundreds of people who contributed to the collection and management of the data from the plots.

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Authors and Affiliations



S.E.R. conceived and designed the study, assembled and analysed the data, and wrote the manuscript. S.E.R., G.L. and M.D. designed and analysed the theoretical model. R.S.C., S.J.D., M.D., S.M.M. and S.J.W. made important contributions to interpreting the results and to writing and revising the manuscript. R.S.C., S.J.D., P.S.A., S.B., C.-H.C.-Y., S.E., C.E.N.E., C.F., R.B.F., C.V.S.G., I.A.U.N.G., T.H., C.-F.H., S.P.H., A.I., A.R.K., Y.T.L., Y.C.L., J.-R.M., M.B.M., P.O., A.S., I.-F.S., S.T., J.T., T.Y., S.L.Y. and J.K.Z. contributed to the acquisition of the data used in the paper and in writing the manuscript. All authors have given final approval to publish this manuscript and agree to be accountable for the aspects of the work that they conducted.

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Correspondence to Sabrina E. Russo.

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Supplementary Information

Supplementary Appendix 1 containing Results and Discussion, Figs. 1–3, and Tables 1–4; and Appendix 2 containing model description, Figs. 4–7 and Table 5.

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Russo, S.E., McMahon, S.M., Detto, M. et al. The interspecific growth–mortality trade-off is not a general framework for tropical forest community structure. Nat Ecol Evol 5, 174–183 (2021).

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