1. The goal of conservation and restoration activities is to maintain biological diversity and the ecosystem services that this diversity provides. These activities traditionally focus on the measures of species diversity that include only information on the presence and abundance of species. Yet how diversity influences ecosystem function depends on the traits and niches filled by species.
2. Biological diversity can be quantified in ways that account for functional and phenotypic differences. A number of such measures of functional diversity (FD) have been created, quantifying the distribution of traits in a community or the relative magnitude of species similarities and differences. We review FD measures and why they are intuitively useful for understanding ecological patterns and are important for management.
3. In order for FD to be meaningful and worth measuring, it must be correlated with ecosystem function, and it should provide information above and beyond what species richness or diversity can explain. We review these two propositions, examining whether the strength of the correlation between FD and species richness varies across differing environmental gradients and whether FD offers greater explanatory power of ecosystem function than species richness.
4. Previous research shows that the relationship between FD and richness is complex and context dependent. Different functional traits can show individual responses to different gradients, meaning that important changes in diversity can occur with minimal change in richness. Further, FD can explain variation in ecosystem function even when richness does not.
5. Synthesis and applications. FD measures those aspects of diversity that potentially affect community assembly and function. Given this explanatory power, FD should be incorporated into conservation and restoration decision-making, especially for those efforts attempting to reconstruct or preserve healthy, functioning ecosystems.