Tropical forests represent an important pool in the global carbon cycle. Their biomass stocks and carbon fluxes are variable in space and time, which is a challenge for accurate measurements. Forest models are therefore used to investigate these complex forest dynamics. The challenge of considering the high species diversity of tropical forests is often addressed by grouping species into plant functional types (PFTs). We investigated how reduced numbers of PFTs affect the prediction of productivity (GPP, NPP) and other carbon fluxes derived from forest simulations. We therefore parameterized a forest gap model for a specific study site with just one PFT (comparable to global vegetation models) on the one hand, and two versions with a higher amount of PFTs, on the other hand. For an old-growth forest, aboveground biomass and basal area can be reproduced very well with all parameterizations. However, the absence of pioneer tree species in the parameterizations with just one PFT leads to a reduction in estimated gross primary production by 60% and an increase of estimated net ecosystem exchange by 50%. These findings may have consequences for productivity estimates of forests at regional and continental scales. Models with a reduced number of PFTs are limited in simulating forest succession, in particular regarding the forest growth after disturbances or transient dynamics. We conclude that a higher amount of species groups increases the accuracy of forest succession simulations. We suggest using at a minimum three PFTs with at least one species group representing pioneer tree species.
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