The intrinsic dimensionality of plant traits and its relevance to community assembly



  1. Plants are multifaceted organisms that have evolved numerous solutions to the problem of establishing, growing and reproducing with limited resources. The intrinsic dimensionality of plant traits is the minimum number of independent axes of variation that adequately describes the functional variation among plants and is therefore a fundamental quantity in comparative plant ecology. Given the large number of functional traits that are measured on plants, the dimensionality of plant form and function is potentially vast.
  2. A variety of linear and nonlinear methods were used to estimate the intrinsic dimensionality of three large trait data sets. The results of these analyses indicate that while the dimensionality of plant traits is generally larger than we have admitted in the past, it does not exceed six in the most comprehensive data set.
  3. The dimensionality of plant form and function is a blessing, not a curse. The higher the intrinsic dimension of traits in an analysis, the more easily our models will be able to accurately discriminate species in trait space and therefore be able to predict species distributions and abundances. Recent analyses indicate that the ability to predict community composition increases rapidly with additional traits, but reaches a plateau after four to eight traits.
  4. Synthesis. There appears to be a tractable upper limit to the dimensionality of plant traits. To optimize research efficiency for advancing our understanding of trait-based community assembly, ecologists should minimize the number of traits while maximizing the number of dimensions, because including multiple correlated traits does not yield dividends and including more than eight traits leads to diminishing returns. It is recommended to measure traits from multiple organs whenever possible, especially leaf, stem, root and flowering traits, given their consistent performance in explaining community assembly across different ecosystems.