Predicting changes in community composition and ecosystem functioning from plant traits: revisiting the Holy Grail


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  • 1The concept of plant functional type proposes that species can be grouped according to common responses to the environment and/or common effects on ecosystem processes. However, the knowledge of relationships between traits associated with the response of plants to environmental factors such as resources and disturbances (response traits), and traits that determine effects of plants on ecosystem functions (effect traits), such as biogeochemical cycling or propensity to disturbance, remains rudimentary.
  • 2We present a framework using concepts and results from community ecology, ecosystem ecology and evolutionary biology to provide this linkage. Ecosystem functioning is the end result of the operation of multiple environmental filters in a hierarchy of scales which, by selecting individuals with appropriate responses, result in assemblages with varying trait composition. Functional linkages and trade-offs among traits, each of which relates to one or several processes, determine whether or not filtering by different factors gives a match, and whether ecosystem effects can be easily deduced from the knowledge of the filters.
  • 3To illustrate this framework we analyse a set of key environmental factors and ecosystem processes. While traits associated with response to nutrient gradients strongly overlapped with those determining net primary production, little direct overlap was found between response to fire and flammability.
  • 4We hypothesize that these patterns reflect general trends. Responses to resource availability would be determined by traits that are also involved in biogeochemical cycling, because both these responses and effects are driven by the trade-off between acquisition and conservation. On the other hand, regeneration and demographic traits associated with response to disturbance, which are known to have little connection with adult traits involved in plant ecophysiology, would be of little relevance to ecosystem processes.
  • 5This framework is likely to be broadly applicable, although caution must be exercised to use trait linkages and trade-offs appropriate to the scale, environmental conditions and evolutionary context. It may direct the selection of plant functional types for vegetation models at a range of scales, and help with the design of experimental studies of relationships between plant diversity and ecosystem properties.