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Keywords:

  • Australia;
  • community phylogenetic structure;
  • environmental gradients;
  • functional traits;
  • niche breadth;
  • rain forest;
  • scale;
  • seed size

Abstract

To compare community assemblage patterns in tropical northeastern and subtropical central eastern Australia across selected gradients and scales, we tested the relationship of species traits with phylogenetic structure, and niche breadth. We considered phylogenetic relationships across current-day species in assemblages in relation to rain forest species pool sizes, and trait values along gradients including elevation and latitude. Trait values were quantified across scales for seed size, leaf area, wood density and maximum height at maturity for 1137 species and 596 assemblages using trait gradient analysis (TGA). Local assemblages of subtropical species had narrower trait ranges, and higher niche breadth values than corresponding assemblages of tropical species. Leaf size and seed size increased at low latitudes, and community phylogenetic structure was most strongly correlated with seed traits in the subtropics, reflecting dispersal and re-colonization processes. Elevation accounted for little of the variance in community phylogenetic structure or trait variation across local and regional scales. Stable moist forest areas retained many species from ancestral rain forest lineages across a range of temporally conserved habitats; species within assemblages were less related; and rain forest assemblages had higher functional diversity, but lower niche breadth. This suggests that on average, assemblages of species in stable areas had greater trait variation and narrower distributions. Historic and recent rain forest contraction and re-expansion can result in recolonized areas that are dominated by species that are more related (phylogenetically) than by chance, have smaller, widely dispersed seeds, and greater niche breadth (broader distributions).