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Data from: Trait-based formal definition of plant functional types and functional communities in the multi-species and multi-traits context

Cite this dataset

Tsakalos, James. L. et al. (2020). Data from: Trait-based formal definition of plant functional types and functional communities in the multi-species and multi-traits context [Dataset]. Dryad.


The concepts of traits, plant functional types (PFT), and functional communities are effective tools for the study of complex phenomena such as plant community assembly. Here, we (1) suggest a procedure formalising the classification of response traits to construct a PFT system; (2) integrate the PFT, and species compositional data to formally define functional communities; and, (3) identify environmental drivers that underpin the functional-community patterns.A species–trait data set featuring species pooled from two study sites (Eneabba and Cooljarloo, Western Australia), both supporting kwongan vegetation (sclerophyllous scrub and woodland communities), was subjected to classification to define PFTs. Species of both study sites were replaced with the newly derived PFTs and projected cover abundance-weighted means calculated for every plot. Functional communities were defined by classifications of the abundance-weighted PFT data in the respective sites. Distance-based redundancy analysis (using the abundance-weighted community and environmental data) was used to infer drivers of the functional community patterns for each site.A classification based on trait data assisted in reducing trait-space complexity in the studied vegetation and revealed 26 PFTs shared across the study sites. In total, seven functional communities were identified. We demonstrate a putative functional-community pattern-driving effect of soil-texture (clay—sand) gradients at Eneabba (42% of the total inertia explained) and that of water repellence at Cooljarloo (36%). Synthesis. This paper presents a procedure formalising the classification of multiple response traits leading to the delineation of PFTs and functional communities. This step captures plant responses to stresses and disturbance characteristic of kwongan vegetation, including low nutrient status, water stress, and fire (a landscape-level disturbance factor). Our study is the first to introduce a formal procedure assisting their formal recognition. Our results support the role of short-term abiotic drivers structuring the formation of fine-scale functional community patterns in a complex, species-rich vegetation of Western Australia.


The low availability of nutrients and water, and the regular occurrence of fire are the most pronounced natural disturbance considered as the principal drivers of vegetation patterning and dynamics in kwongan vegetation of Western Australia. To develop a plant functional type system explicitly reflecting these environmental challenges, we created a trait database describing various eco-morphological and functional aspects of the life history of the species sampled in both study areas. To this end, we compiled a soft-trait database featuring 1286 species indexed according to 21 binary traits scored from published taxonomic descriptions, our in situ studies, and inspection of lodged specimens (Western Australia Herbarium 2019–). Expert advice (see Acknowledgements) was sought with some specialised traits and syndromes. The functional traits used in this analysis and their states have been linked to the functional aspects of water relations, carbon balance, nutrition and fire, affecting growth, reproduction and/or survival are detailed to provide ecological relevance (see Table 1).

Table 1. Functional traits, their states and ecological relevance. The column Functional aspect indicates links of traits with water relations, carbon balance, nutrition and fire, affecting growth, reproduction and/or survival. Codes were produced for use in the PFT classification.

Form manifestation

Functional aspect




Code (Value)


Longevity (Annual, Perennial)


Summer drought avoidance; growth maintenance or regeneration; persistence; carbon allocation; potential rooting depth

Ludlow et al. 1983; Grime 1977; Bond & Midgley 2001


None (Yes, No)

Pseudo (Yes, No)A

Basal (Yes, No)

All (Yes, No)

Woodiness (None)

Woodiness (Pseudo)

Woodiness (Base)

Woodiness (All)

Structural support; stress tolerance; the rate of nutrient turnover

Küppers 1989; Eckstein et al. 1999; Chaves et al. 2002


Succulency (Yes, No)


Drought tolerance, salinity tolerance

Wright et al. 2004; Farooq et al. 2009

Photosynthetic path

C3 (Yes, No)

C4 (Yes, No)

CAM (Yes, No)

Photosynthesis (C3)

Photosynthesis (C4)

Photosynthesis (CAM)

Water use efficiency; carbon assimilation; high-temperature tolerance

Ehleringer & Monson 1993; Hopkins & Hüner 2008; Gillison 2013


Autotrophy (Yes, No)


Carbon assimilation; water use efficiency; transpiration

Hopkins & Hüner 2008; Gillison 2013


None (Yes, No)

Stem (Yes, No)

Root (Yes, No)

Parasitism (None)

Parasitism (Stem)

Parasitism (Root)

Carbon, water and nutrient acquisition

Press & Phoenix 2005


Carnivory (Yes, No)


Nutrient acquisition

Givinish 1989; Ellison & Gotelli 2001

Nutrient mining

Nutrient mining (Yes, No)

Nutrient mining

Nutrient mobilization and acquisition;

Lambers et al. 2008; Lambers et al. 2012

N2 fixation

N2 fixation (Yes, No)

N2 fixation

Nutrient acquisition; N2 fixation

Zahran 1999; Png et al. 2017

Mycorrhizal association

Arbuscular-Ectomycorrhizal (Yes, No)

Ericoid mycorrhizae (Yes, No)

Orchid mycorrhizae (Yes, No)

Mycorrhizae (AM-EM)

Mycorrhizae (Ericoid)

Mycorrhizae (Orchid)

Nutrient acquisition

Read 1983; Pate 1994; Brundrett 2009; van der Heijden et al. 2015; Moora 2014

Root-microbial association

Yes (i.e., N2, MycAE, Myc.Eri, Myc.Orc), No

Microbial association

Nutrient acquisition

Marschner & Dell 1994; Lambers et al. 2014

Fire response

Fire response (Obligate seeder, Resprouter)

Fire response (Sprouting)

Life history; use of water and nutrients post-fire; dispersal, Competition for space/light; ruderal pioneers (C-S-R); response to fire

Cowling 1994; Kozlowski & Pallardy 2002; Enright et al. 2011; Gillison 2013

APseudo-woodiness’ refers to trunks appearing woody composed from a mass of old leaf bases (as in Xanthorrhoea) held together by natural resin rather than true wood of dicot species. We have classified Kingia australis as ‘pseudo-woody. In this case the trunk (appearing ‘woody’) is formed by adventitious roots that originated in the top meristems


Bond, W.J, Midgley, J.J. 2001. Ecology of sprouting in woody plants: the persistence niche. Trends Ecol. Evol. 16, 45–51.

Brundrett, M.C., 2009. Mycorrhizal associations and other means of nutrition of vascular plants: understanding the global diversity of host plants by resolving conflicting information and developing reliable means of diagnosis. Plant Soil 320, 37–77.

Chaves, M.M., Pereira, J.S., Maroco, J., Rodrigues, M.L., Ricardo, C.P.P..., & Pinheiro, C., 2002. How plants cope with water stress in the field. Photosynthesis and growth. Ann. Bot. 89, 907916.

Cowling, R.M., Mustart, P.J., Laurie, H,, Richards, M.B., 1994. Species diversity; functional diversity and functional redundancy in fynbos communities. S. Afr. J. Sci. 90, 333–337.

Eckstein, R.L., Karlsson, P.S., Weih, M., 1999. Research review Leaf life span and nutrient resorption as determinants of plant nutrient conservation in temperate-arctic regions. New Phytol. 143, 177189.

Ehleringer, J., Monson, R., 1993. Evolutionary and ecological aspects of photosynthetic pathway variation. Annu. Rev. Ecol. Syst. 24, 411–439.

Ellison, A.M., Gotelli, N.J., 2001. Evolutionary ecology of carnivorous plants. Trends Ecol. Evol. 16: 623629.

Enright, N.J., Fontaine, J.B., Westcott, V.C., Lade, J.C., Miller, B.P., 2011. Fire interval effects on persistence of resprouter species in Mediterranean-type shrublands. Plant Ecol. 212, 20712083.

Farooq, M., Wahid, A., Kobayashi, N., Fujita, D., Basra, S.M.A., 2009. Plant drought stress: effects, mechanisms and management, in: Lichtfouse, E., Navarrete, M., Debaeke, P., Véronique, S., & Alberola, C. (Eds.), Sustainable Agriculture. Springer, Dordrecht, pp. 153–188.

Gillison, A.N., 2013. Plant functional types and traits at the community, ecosystem and world level, in: van der Maarel, E., Franklin, J. (Eds.), Vegetation Ecology, second edition. John Wiley & Sons, New Jersey, pp. 347–386.

Givnish, T.J., 1989. Ecology and evolution of carnivorous plants, in: Abrahamson, W. G. (Ed.), Plant-animal Interactions. McGraw-Hill, New York, pp. 242–290.

Grime, J.P., 1977. Evidence for the existence of three primary strategies in plants and its relevance to ecological and evolutionary theory. Amer. Natur. 111, 1169–1194.

Hopkins, W.G., Hüner, N.P.A., 2008. Introduction to Plant Physiology, fourth edition. John Wiley & Sons, New York.

Kozlowski, T.T., Pallardy, S.G., 2002. Acclimation and adaptive responses of woody plants to environmental stresses. Bot. Rev. 68, 270–334.

Küppers, M., 1989. Ecological significance of above-ground architectural patterns in woody plants: A question of cost-benefit relationships. Trends Ecol. Evol. 4, 375–379.

Lambers, H., Raven, J.A., Shaver, G.R., Smith, S.E., 2008. Plant nutrient acquisition strategies change with soil age. Trends Ecol. Evol. 23, 95–103.

Lambers, H., Bishop, J.G., Hopper, S.D., Laliberté, E., Zúniga-Feest, A., 2012. Phosphorus-mobilization ecosystem engineering: the roles of cluster roots and carboxylate exudation in young P-limited ecosystems. Ann. Bot. 110, 329–348.

Lambers, H., Shane, M.W., Laliberté, E., Swarts, N., Teste, F., Zemunik, G., 2014. Plant mineral nutrition. in: Lambers, H. (Ed.), Plant Life on the Sandplains in Southwest Australia, a Global Biodiversity Hotspot. UWA Publishing, Crawley, AU, pp.  pp. 35–79.

Ludlow, M.M., 1983. Strategies of response to water stress, in: Kreeb K.H., Righter H. and Minckley T.M. (Eds.), Structural and Functional Response to Environmental Stresses. The Hague: SPB Academic Publishers, Berlin, DE, pp. 269–281.

Marschner, H., Dell, B. 1994. Nutrient uptake in mycorrhizal symbiosis. Plant Soil 159, 89–102.

Moora, M., 2014. Mycorrhizal traits and plant communities: perspectives for integration. J. Veg. Sci. 25, 1126–1132.

Pate, J.S., 1994. The mycorrhizal association: just one of many nutrient acquiring specializations in natural ecosystems. Plant Soil 159, 1–10.

Png, G.K., Turner, B.L., Albornoz, F.E., Hayes, P.E., Lambers, H..., & Cameron, D., 2017. Greater root phosphatase activity in nitrogen‐fixing rhizobial but not actinorhizal plants with declining phosphorus availability. J. Ecol. 105, 1246–1255.

Press, M.C., Phoenix, G.K., 2005. Impacts of parasitic plants on natural communities. New Phytol. 166, 737–751.

Read, D.J., 1983. The biology of mycorrhiza in the Ericales. Can. J. Bot. 61, 985–1004.

van der Heijden, M.G., Martin, F.M., Selosse, M.A., Sanders, I.R., 2015. Mycorrhizal ecology and evolution: the past, the present, and the future. New Phytol. 205, 1406–1423.

Wright, I.J., Reich, P.B., Westoby, M., Ackerley, D.D., Baruch, Z..., & Villar, R., 2004. The worldwide leaf economics spectrum. Nature 428, 821–827.

Zahran, H.H., 1999. Rhizobium-legume symbiosis and nitrogen fixation under severe conditions and in an arid climate. Microbiol. Mol. Biol. Rev. 63, 968–989.

Usage notes

Updated Trait Data Changes

  • features the original 21 traits used in the manuscript,
  • an additional 67 binary traits, and
  • updated nomenclature for 49 species following the Western Australian Herbarium's November 2020 census


Australian Research Council, Award: LP150100339