Inferring community assembly mechanisms from functional diversity patterns: the importance of multiple assembly processes


  • Marko J. Spasojevic,

    Corresponding author
    1. Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, 321 Steinhaus Hall, University of California Irvine, Irvine, CA 92697, USA
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    • Present address: Department of Environmental Science and Policy, 3132 Wickson Hall, University of California Davis, Davis, CA 95616, USA.

  • Katharine N. Suding

    1. Department of Environmental Science, Policy & Management, 137 Mulford Hall #3144, University of California Berkeley, Berkeley, CA 94720, USA
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1. Many studies of community assembly focus on two mechanisms: environmental filtering and competitive interactions. This focus ignores the importance of other assembly processes such as equalizing fitness processes and facilitation. The contribution of different processes to community assembly can be elucidated by examining functional diversity patterns of traits that differ in their contribution to different assembly processes.

2. In alpine tundra, we explored trait patterns along a stress–resource gradient that varied in productivity, nitrogen availability and soil moisture. We explore whether functional diversity is low in abiotic stressful environments and increases in more benign environments as competition becomes more important, and if equalizing fitness processes and facilitation affect functional diversity. We calculated community-weighted mean trait values and functional diversity for specific leaf area (SLA), leaf area, stomatal conductance, plant height and chlorophyll content as well as multivariate functional diversity and phylogenetic diversity.

3. At the community level, functional diversity increased at both ends of the gradient: high resource availability was associated with greater functional diversity in height and leaf area, and lower resource availability was associated with greater functional diversity in SLA, stomatal conductance, and chlorophyll content. As a result of this trade-off in functional diversity among traits, multivariate functional diversity did not change across the gradient. Phylogenetic diversity increased with increasing resource availability.

4. We find evidence for at least three assembly processes along the gradient. Abiotic filtering by wind and cold exposure may reduce functional diversity in height and leaf area at the low resource end of the gradient. Also at low resource availability, increasing functional diversity in the other three traits suggests competition for below-ground resources. At the resource-rich end of the gradient, increased functional diversity in height and leaf area suggests increased competition for light or facilitation.

5.Synthesis: Our results suggest that multiple assembly processes (abiotic filtering, above-ground competition, and below-ground competition) operate simultaneously to structure plant communities along a stress–resource gradient. These processes would be obscured by a single multivariate trait index or phylogenetic diversity and are only evident by analysing functional diversity patterns of individual traits.