A greater range of shade-tolerance niches in nutrient-rich forests: An explanation for positive richness-productivity relationships?

David A. Coomes, Georges Kunstler, Charles D. Canham, Elaine Wright

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96 Citations (Scopus)


A central concept in forest ecology is that differences in the growth rates and shade tolerances of tree species determine patterns of secondary succession. The most shade-tolerant tree species arethe competitive dominants in late-successional forests, while species with fast growth rates persist through rapid establishment after disturbance. There is ample support for niche differentiation along the shade-tolerance axis, at least for temperate forests, but less thought has been given to the range of shade tolerances and growth rates encountered within a community and to how it might vary along environmental gradients. 2. We hypothesized that a wider range of growth rates and shade tolerances are found on nutrient- rich soils, because such soils not only support fast-growing species with high metabolic rates, but also species capable of tolerating the very deep shade cast by forest canopies growing where nutrients are plentiful. We test our hypothesis by quantifying light transmission through two neighbouring forests in southern New Zealand, one on phosphorus-rich alluvial soil and one on phosphorus-depleted marine-terrace soil, and comparing the growth rates of saplings on these contrasting sites. 3. Less light was transmitted to the forest ?oor on alluvial sites than on marine terraces (2.5% vs. 7.5% daylight, on average) and neighbourhood analyses within mapped stands indicated that large-leaved subcanopy species were responsible for intercepting that extra light. Sapling growthwas strongly inhibited by shade in the understorey of the alluvial forests, but was less inhibited nder the terrace forests. 4. Fast-growing subcanopy species were common on the alluvial sites and these species had characteristically soft leaves and high foliar-nutrient concentrations. Slow-growing shade-tolerant species were also abundant on these sites. Therefore, the interspeci?c variance in growth rates wasgreater on nutrient-rich sites, supporting our hypothesis of a greater range of shade tolerance niches on better soils. Of the ?ve species found on both forest sites, all ?ve had greater high-light growth rate on the alluvial sites. 5. Synthesis : A wider range of growth rates was observed in the nutrient-rich forests. This wider range may translate into a greater number of shade tolerance niches and thereby provides an explanation for the greater numbers of species commonly found on nutrient-rich soils when

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)705-717
Number of pages13
JournalJournal of Ecology
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2009


  • Coexistence
  • Forest dynamics
  • Light transmission
  • Niche differentiation
  • Richness-productivity relationships
  • Shade tolerance


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