Ontogenetic trait variation influences tree community assembly across environmental gradients


  • Corresponding Editor: C. Kwit.


Intraspecific trait variation is hypothesized to influence the relative importance of community assembly mechanisms. However, few studies have explicitly considered how intraspecific trait variation among ontogenetic stages influences community assembly across environmental gradients. Because the relative importance of abiotic and biotic assembly mechanisms can differ among ontogenetic stages within and across environments, ontogenetic trait variation may have an important influence on patterns of functional diversity and inferred assembly mechanisms. We tested the hypothesis that variation in functional diversity across a topo-edaphic gradient differs among ontogenetic stages and that these patterns reflect a shift in the relative importance of different assembly mechanisms. In a temperate forest in the Missouri Ozarks, USA, we compared functional diversity of leaf size and specific leaf area (SLA) of 34 woody plant species at two ontogenetic stages (adults and saplings) to test predictions about how the relative importance of abiotic and biotic filtering changes among adult and sapling communities. Local communities of adults had lower mean SLA and lower functional dispersion of SLA than expected by chance, particularly at the resource-limited end of the topo-edaphic gradient, suggesting an important role for abiotic filtering among co-occurring adults. In contrast, local communities of saplings often had higher functional dispersion of leaf size and SLA than expected by chance regardless of their location along the topo-edaphic gradient, suggesting an important role for biotic filtering among co-occurring saplings. Moreover, the overall strength of trait-environment relationships varied between saplings and adults for both leaf traits, generally resulting in stronger environmental shifts in mean trait values and trait dispersion for adults relative to saplings. Our results illustrate how community assembly mechanisms may shift in their relative importance during ontogeny, leading to variable patterns of functional diversity across environmental gradients. Moreover, our results highlight the importance of integrating ontogeny, an important axis of intraspecific trait variability, into approaches that use plant functional traits to understand community assembly and species coexistence.