Multidecadal stability in tropical rain forest structure and dynamics across an old-growth landscape

PLoS One. 2017 Oct 5;12(10):e0183819. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0183819. eCollection 2017.


Have tropical rain forest landscapes changed directionally through recent decades? To answer this question requires tracking forest structure and dynamics through time and across within-forest environmental heterogeneity. While the impacts of major environmental gradients in soil nutrients, climate and topography on lowland tropical rain forest (TRF) structure and function have been extensively analyzed, the effects of the shorter environmental gradients typical of mesoscale TRF landscapes remain poorly understood. To evaluate multi-decadal performance of an old-growth TRF at the La Selva Biological Station, Costa Rica, we established 18 0.5-ha annually-censused forest inventory plots in a stratified-random design across major landscape edaphic gradients. Over the 17-year study period, there were moderate differences in stand dynamics and structure across these gradients but no detectable difference in woody productivity. We found large effects on forest structure and dynamics from the mega-Niño event at the outset of the study, with subdecadal recovery and subsequent stabilization. To extend the timeline to >40 years, we combined our findings with those from earlier studies at this site. While there were annual to multiannual variations in the structure and dynamics, particularly in relation to local disturbances and the mega-Niño event, at the longer temporal scale and broader spatial scale this landscape was remarkably stable. This stability contrasts notably with a current hypothesis of increasing biomass and dynamics of TRF, which we term the Bigger and Faster Hypothesis (B&FHo). We consider possible reasons for the contradiction and conclude that it is currently not possible to independently assess the vast majority of previously published B&FHo evidence due to restricted data access.

MeSH terms

  • Biomass*
  • Climate*
  • Costa Rica
  • Rainforest*
  • Soil*
  • Trees / growth & development*


  • Soil

Grant support

We thank the U.S. National Science Foundation ( for long-term funding of the CARBONO project, most recently from NSF LTREB NSF 1357177 to David B. Clark, Deborah A. Clark and James Kellner. Additional funding was provided by the U.S. Department of Energy DE-FG02-96ER62289 ( and the Tropical Ecosystems Ecology and Monitoring Project of Conservation International (