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Topographic distributions of emergent trees in tropical forests of the Osa Peninsula, Costa Rica

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Tropical rainforests are reservoirs of terrestrial carbon and biodiversity. Large and often emergent trees store disproportionately large amounts of aboveground carbon and greatly influence the structure and functioning of tropical rainforests. Despite their importance, controls on the abundance and distribution of emergent trees are largely unknown across tropical landscapes. Conventional field approaches are limited in their ability to characterize patterns in emergent trees across vast landscapes with varying environmental conditions and floristic composition. Here, we used a high‐resolution light detection and ranging (LiDAR) sensor aboard the Carnegie Airborne Observatory Airborne Taxonomic Mapping System (CAO‐AToMS) to examine the abundance and distribution of tall emergent tree crowns (ETC) relative to surrounding tree crowns (STC) across the Osa Peninsula, a geologically and topographically diverse region of Costa Rica. The abundance of ETC was clearly influenced by fine‐scale topographic variation, with distribution patterns that held across a variety of geologic substrates. Specifically, the density of ETC was much greater on lower slopes and in valleys, compared to upper slopes and ridges. Furthermore, using the CAO high‐fidelity imaging spectrometer, ETC had a different spectral signature than that of STC. Most notably, ETC had lower remotely sensed foliar nitrogen than STC, which was verified with an independent field survey of canopy leaf chemistry. The underlying mechanisms to explain the topographic‐dependence of ETCs and linkages to canopy N are unknown, and remain an important area of research.
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: July 1, 2017

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