Community assembly and shifts in plant trait distributions across an environmental gradient in coastal California


  • Corresponding Editor: L. A. Donovan.


Community assembly processes are thought to shape the mean, spread, and spacing of functional trait values within communities. Two broad categories of assembly processes have been proposed: first, a habitat filter that restricts the range of viable strategies and second, a partitioning of microsites and/or resources that leads to a limit to the similarity of coexisting species. The strength of both processes may be dependent on conditions at a particular site and may change along an abiotic gradient.

We sampled environmental variables and plant communities in 44 plots across the varied topography of a coastal California landscape. We characterized 14 leaf, stem, and root traits for 54 woody plant species, including detailed intraspecific data for two traits with the goal of understanding the connection between traits and assembly processes in a variety of environmental conditions.

We examined the within-community mean, range, variance, kurtosis, and other measures of spacing of trait values. In this landscape, there was a topographically mediated gradient in water availability. Across this gradient we observed strong shifts in both the plot-level mean trait values and the variation in trait values within communities. Trends in trait means with the environment were due largely to species turnover, with intraspecific shifts playing a smaller role. Traits associated with a vertical partitioning of light showed a greater range and variance on the wet soils, while nitrogen per area, which is associated with water use efficiency, showed a greater spread on the dry soils.

We found strong nonrandom patterns in the trait distributions consistent with expectations based on trait-mediated community assembly. There was a significant reduction in the range of six out of 11 leaf and stem functional trait values relative to a null model. For specific leaf area (SLA) we found a significant even spacing of trait values relative to the null model. For seed size we found a more platykurtic distribution than expected. These results suggest that both a habitat filter and a limit to the similarity of coexisting species can simultaneously shape the distribution of traits and the assembly of local plant communities.