• alpine ecosystems;
  • environmental gradients;
  • functional strategies;
  • interspecific and intraspecific variability;
  • leaf economics spectrum;
  • linear mixed models;
  • plant functional traits;
  • species ranking


1. Functional traits have been extensively used to describe, group and rank species according to their functions. There is now growing evidence that intraspecific functional variability, as well as interspecific variability, can have significant effects on community dynamics and ecosystem functioning. A core hypothesis for the use of functional traits expressed as species means, that their intraspecific variability is negligible compared with their interspecific variability, has however been too rarely tested empirically. We then addressed four questions: Is intraspecific functional variability across species ranges negligible compared with interspecific variability? Are the major resource economics trade-off and functional strategies robust to individual trait variability? Are species rankings or ordination robust across species ranges once considering intraspecific variability? Can species be discriminated by their leaf traits?

2. Using an environmentally stratified sampling design within an alpine catchment, we collected five functional traits for 13 common plant species with contrasting life histories and traits. Several populations from a range of environmental conditions were then sampled for each species across their ranges.

3. With an original combination of single-trait and multi-trait analyses, we highlighted a non-negligible contribution of intraspecific variability to overall functional trait variability (∼30%). Although not affecting general and well-known functional trade-offs and strategies, intraspecific functional variability had the potential to alter species ordination and produced a functional continuum rather than a clear-cut species classification.

4. Deciding whether intraspecific functional variability can be considered as negligible – species being represented by mean trait values –, or not – species being represented by multivariate trait distributions –, is an essential question for multiple ecological issues. However, this decision cannot be generic, but will depend on the studied system and selected traits and species, as well as on study objectives.