1. Functional trait diversity can reveal mechanisms of species coexistence in plant communities. Few studies have tested whether functional diversity for foliar traits related to resource-use strategy increases or decreases with declining soil phosphorus (P) in forest communities.
2. We quantified tree basal area and four foliar functional traits (i.e. nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), thickness and tissue density) for all woody species along the c. 120 000 year Franz Josef soil chronosequence in cool temperate rain forest, where strong shifts occur in light and soil nutrient availability (i.e. total soil P declines from 805 to 100 mg kg−1). We combined the abundance and trait data in functional diversity indices to quantify trait convergence and divergence, in an effort to determine whether mechanisms of coexistence change with soil fertility.
3. Relationships between species trait means and total soil N and P were examined using multiple regression, with and without weighting of species abundances. We used Rao’s quadratic entropy to quantify functional diversity at the plot scale, then compared this with random expectation, using a null model that randomizes abundances across species within plots. Taxonomic diversity was measured using Simpson’s Diversity. Relationships between functional and taxonomic diversity and total soil P were examined using jackknife linear regression.
4. Leaf N and P declined and leaf thickness and density increased monotonically with declining total soil P along the sequence; these relationships were unaffected by abundance weighting of species in the analyses. Inclusion of total soil N did not improve predictions of trait means. All measures of diversity calculated from presence/absence data were unrelated to total soil N and P. There was no evidence for a relationship between Rao values using quantitative abundances and total soil P. However, there was a strong positive relationship between Rao, expressed relative to random expectation, and total soil P, indicating trait convergence of dominant species as soil P declined.
5. Synthesis: Our results demonstrate that at high fertility locally dominant species differ in resource-use strategy, but as soil fertility declines over the long term, dominant species increasingly converge on a resource-retentive strategy. This suggests that differentiation in resource-use strategy is required for coexistence at high-fertility but not in low-fertility ecosystems.