Resource Acquisition and Reproductive Strategies of Tropical Forest in Response to the El Niño–Southern Oscillation

Coordination between leaf and fruit phenology driven by a warm phase of ENSO.

The Science

It has been suggested that tree phenology may be regulated by climatic oscillations. Here, a team a scientists from the Next-Generation Ecosystem Experiments (NGEE)–Tropics project present a 30-year tropical forest dataset that suggests leaf and fruit production is coordinated with El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycles, with greater leaf fall observed prior to El Niño, followed by greater seed production.

The Impact

The response of tropical forest to ENSO events and in general to drought and other environmental stresses is still under exploration. Here, they show a relatively strong response of tropical phenology (fruiting and leafing) to a warming phase of ENSO. This discovery can help in understanding the mechanisms of response or adaptation of plants to climate variability and pave the road to their implementation into Earth Ecosystem Models.


For the first time an interaction between phenophases of tropical plants (leafing and fruiting) is shown to be driven by large-scale periodic climate variations. This interaction mirrors the dynamics between dry and wet seasons, suggesting adaptive strategies to optimize reproduction and resource acquisition in response to environmental stress.

Principal Investigator

Matteo Detto
Princeton University and Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute

Program Manager

Daniel Stover
U.S. Department of Energy, Biological and Environmental Research (SC-33)
Environmental System Science


The Environmental Sciences Program of the Smithsonian Institution funded the data collection. M.D. was partially supported by the Next-Generation Ecosystem Experiments (NGEE)–Tropics project. Raul Rios, Brian Harvey, and Steven Paton collected the BCI climate data.


Detto, M., S. J. Wright, O. Calderón, and H. C. Muller-Landau. "Resource acquisition and reproductive strategies of tropical forest in response to the El Niño-Southern Oscillation". Nature Communications 9 913  (2018).