Community trait response to environment: disentangling species turnover vs intraspecific trait variability effects
Ecological communities and their response to environmental gradients are increasingly being described by various measures of trait composition. Aggregated trait averages (i.e. averages of trait values of constituent species, weighted by species proportions) are popular indices reflecting the functional characteristics of locally dominant species. Because the variation of these indices along environmental gradients can be caused by both species turnover and intraspecific trait variability, it is necessary to disentangle the role of both components to community variability. For quantitative traits, trait averages can be calculated from ‘fixed’ trait values (i.e. a single mean trait value for individual species used for all habitats where the species is found) or trait values for individual species specific to each plot, or habitat, where the species is found. Changes in fixed averages across environments reflect species turnover, while changes in specific traits reflect both species turnover and within‐species variability in traits. Here we suggest a practical method (accompanied by a set of R functions) that, by combining ‘fixed’ and ‘specific averages’, disentangles the effect of species turnover, intraspecific trait variability, and their covariation. These effects can be further decomposed into parts ascribed to individual explanatory variables (i.e. treatments or environmental gradients considered). The method is illustrated with a case study from a factorial mowing and fertilization experiment in a meadow in South Bohemia. Results show that the variability decomposition differs markedly among traits studied (height, Specific Leaf Area, Leaf N, P, C concentrations, leaf and stem dry matter content), both according to the relative importance of species turnover and intraspecific variability, and also according to their response to experimental factors. Both the effect of intraspecific trait variability and species turnover must be taken into account when assessing the functional role of community trait structure. Neglecting intraspecific trait variability across habitats often results in underestimating the response of communities to environmental changes.
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Document Type: Research Article
Publication date: October 1, 2011