Hierarchical effects of environmental filters on the functional structure of plant communities: a case study in the French Alps


F. de Bello, Inst. of Botany, Czech Academy of Sciences, Dukelská 135, CZ-379 82 Třeboň, Czech Republic. fradebello@ctfc.es


Understanding the influence of the environment on the functional structure of ecological communities is essential to predict the response of biodiversity to global change drivers. Ecological theory suggests that multiple environmental factors shape local species assemblages by progressively filtering species from the regional species pool to local communities. These successive filters should influence the various components of community functional structure in different ways. In this paper, we tested the relative influence of multiple environmental filters on various metrics of plant functional trait structure (i.e. ‘community weighted mean trait’ and components of functional trait diversity, i.e. functional richness, evenness and divergence) in 82 vegetation plots in the Guisane Valley, French Alps. For the 211 sampled species we measured traits known to capture key aspects of ecological strategies amongst vascular plant species, i.e. leaf traits, plant height and seed mass (LHS). A comprehensive information theory framework, together with null model based resampling techniques, was used to test the various environmental effects. Particular community components of functional structure responded differently to various environmental gradients, especially concerning the spatial scale at which the environmental factors seem to operate. Environmental factors acting at a large spatial scale (e.g. temperature) were found to predominantly shape community weighted mean trait values, while fine-scale factors (topography and soil characteristics) mostly influenced functional diversity and the distribution of trait values among the dominant species. Our results emphasize the hierarchical nature of ecological forces shaping local species assemblage: large-scale environmental filters having a primary effect, i.e. selecting the pool of species adapted to a site, and then filters at finer scales determining species abundances and local species coexistence. This suggests that different components of functional community structure will respond differently to environmental change, so that predicting plant community responses will require a hierarchical multi-facet approach.