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Keywords:

  • Agricultural management;
  • Ecosystem function;
  • Functional diversity;
  • Functional ratings;
  • Plant functional types;
  • Productivity

Abstract

Questions: Can we use plant traits to make predictions about ecosystem functioning of different species mixtures, identify inherent trade-offs of particular species, and design custom communities for desired ecosystem functions? Can we develop a methodology to address plant trait–functioning relationships in species-level units, which are missing from measures of community functional diversity but needed for management?

Location: Grazing lands northeastern USA.

Method: We measured 53 physiological, morphological and growth traits for 19 plant species from glasshouse and field experiments. We developed a two-step method to link species to ecosystem processes related to management goals of improving desirable forage production in grazing lands in northeastern USA.

Results: Species were distributed continuously, rather than clustering into discrete functional types. Grasses, legumes and forbs overlapped considerably in trait values with these common classifications failing to adequately distinguish functional differences. Factor analyses were used to assess variation in species traits, and to rate species for six plant processes through which species contribute to the production of desirable forage. Species performed well in some processes and poorly in others, illustrating complex trade-offs.

Conclusions: This methodology provides a foundation for developing tools to guide construction of communities for applied settings, and for assembling hypotheses about plant functioning in mixtures.