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Functional traits of individual trees reveal ecological constraints on community assembly in tropical rain forests


C. E. Timothy Paine, ENGREF, UMR Ecologie des Forêts de Guyane, Kourou, BP 709, 97387 cedex, French Guiana. E-mail:


Niche differentiation and ecological filtering are primary ecological processes that shape community assembly, but their relative importance remains poorly understood. Analyses of the distributions of functional traits can provide insight into the community structure generated by these processes. We predicted the trait distributions expected under the ecological processes of niche differentiation and environmental filtering, then tested these predictions with a dataset of 4672 trees located in nine 1-ha plots of tropical rain forest in French Guiana. Five traits related to leaf function (foliar N concentration, chlorophyll content, toughness, tissue density and specific leaf area), and three traits related to stem function (trunk sapwood density, branch sapwood density, and trunk bark thickness), as well as laminar surface area, were measured on every individual tree. There was far more evidence for environmental filtering than for niche differentiation in these forests. Furthermore, we contrasted results from species-mean and individual-level trait values. Analyses that took within-species trait variation into account were far more sensitive indicators of niche differentiation and ecological filtering. Species-mean analyses, by contrast, may underestimate the effects of ecological processes on community assembly. Environmental filtering appeared somewhat more intense on leaf traits than on stem traits, whereas niche differentiation affected neither strongly. By accounting for within-species trait variation, we were able to more properly consider the ecological interactions among individual trees and between individual trees and their environment. In so doing, our results suggest that the ecological processes of niche differentiation and environmental filtering may be more pervasive than previously believed.