Primary tropical forests comprise a mosaic of mature, gap and building phase patches, resulting in great spatial variation in the distribution of foliage. Light may consequently penetrate into the forest interior over a wide range of angles. It thus seems possible that understorey tree species might be adapted for distinct understorey light conditions. At the Cocha Cashu Biological Station in Madre de Dios, Peru, there are two understorey treelets distinguished by contrasting crown architectures. One, Neea chlorantha (Nyctaginaceae), possesses a much-branched superstructure and displays a smoothly contoured shell of drooping elliptical leaves. The other, Rinorea viridifolia (Violaceae), displays planar arrays of horizontally-oriented obovate leaves held on whorls of stiffly radiating horizontal branches.
With the aid of hemispherical photography and the program CANOPY, the light environment at large within a 2.25-ha permanent tree plot, and above and below the crowns of Neea and Rinorea treelets, was investigated. Available light (measured as uncorrected indirect site factor (ISFU) in CANOPY) at control points showed a log-linear increase with height from 2.1 to 14.2 m. The relative amount of lateral illumination also increased with height. Photographs were taken just above and below the crowns of 50 Neea and 50 Rinorea treelets. Neea crowns were more effective at intercepting light from overhead sources, whereas Rinorea crowns were more effective at intercepting light from lateral sources. Adult Neea and Rinorea treelets occurred at locations in the forest where they were exposed to differing angular distributions of incident light, suggesting that the two species were engaged in a form of resource partitioning, a conclusion that is in conflict with the non-equilibrium model of tropical forest tree species diversity. It is suggested that tropical tree species diversity is, at least in part, a product of adaptive specialization to a spatially heterogeneous light environment.