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Predicting species diversity in tropical forests

The National Academy of Sciences
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  • Biological Sciences
  • Biology
  • Ecology


A fundamental question in ecology is how many species occur within a given area. Despite the complexity and diversity of different ecosystems, there exists a surprisingly simple, approximate answer: the number of species is proportional to the size of the area raised to some exponent. The exponent often turns out to be roughly 1/4. This power law can be derived from assumptions about the relative abundances of species or from notions of self-similarity. Here we analyze the largest existing data set of location-mapped species: over one million, individually identified trees from five tropical forests on three continents. Although the power law is a reasonable, zeroth-order approximation of our data, we find consistent deviations from it on all spatial scales. Furthermore, tropical forests are not self-similar at areas ≤50 hectares. We develop an extended model of the species-area relationship, which enables us to predict large-scale species diversity from small-scale data samples more accurately than any other available method.

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