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Combining plant and animal traits to assess community functional responses to disturbance

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There is a general consensus that functional traits are reliable indicators of adaptation of organisms to particular environmental characteristics. In this study we relate the combined distributions of species traits of plants and animals to disturbance regimes in chestnut forests of southern Switzerland affected by regular winter fires. We used co-inertia analysis for combining the trait response of 471 invertebrate species (117 001 individuals) and 81 plant species at 23 sites with different fire and cutting histories. Trait response was assessed by calculating the variation in weighted mean traits averaged over the communities and by using mean traits in multivariate analyses. The analysis showed a strong association between plant and animal traits under fire constraints (Monte-Carlo test, p=0.0045). Plants and animal distributions show parallel trends in responses to fire which selects traits relating to persistence (ability to survive), resilience (ability to recover) and mobility. Warmth-demanding insects, herbivores, flying carnivores and pollinators were associated with recent fires, as were annual, ruderal and light-demanding plant species with long flowering duration. Small arthropods feeding on dead wood and those with narrow habitat requirements were associated with low fire frequency and unburnt sites, as were competitive plants with large seeds favoring moist sites. The spatial association between plant and animal traits reflected adaptations that promote survival in the disturbance regime, while the disturbance acts as an environmental filter on the distribution and assemblage of the trait values within communities.

This combined analysis of plant and invertebrate traits distributions illustrates how community and ecosystem responses can be monitored and the results generalized across localities and disturbance types. Analyses of traits that cross trophic levels provide powerful and promising tools for validating management procedures and controlling ecosystem functions.
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: April 1, 2009

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