Disturbance is an important factor influencing diversity patterns. Ecological theory predicts that diversity peaks at intermediate levels of disturbance, but this pattern is not present in a majority of empirical tests and can be influenced by the level of ecosystem productivity. We experimentally tested the effects of disturbance on diversity and show that species’ autecological traits and community relations predicted species loss. We found that – alone or in concert – increasing disturbance intensity or frequency, or decreasing productivity, reduced diversity. Our species did not exhibit a clear competition-colonization trade-off, and intrinsic growth rate was a more important predictor of response to disturbance and productivity than measures of competitive ability. Furthermore, competitive ability was more important in predicting responses when, in addition to killing individuals, disturbance returned nutrients to the ecosystem. Our results demonstrate that species’ traits can help resolve conflicting patterns in the response of diversity to disturbance and productivity.