Skip to main content

Data from: Functional traits as predictors of vital rates across the life cycle of tropical trees

Cite this dataset

Visser, Marco D. et al. (2016). Data from: Functional traits as predictors of vital rates across the life cycle of tropical trees [Dataset]. Dryad.


The ‘functional traits’ of species have been heralded as promising predictors for species’ demographic rates and life history. Multiple studies have linked plant species’ demographic rates to commonly measured traits. However, predictive power is usually low – raising questions about the practical usefulness of traits – and analyses have been limited to size-independent univariate approaches restricted to a particular life stage. Here we directly evaluated the predictive power of multiple traits simultaneously across the entire life cycle of 136 tropical tree species from central Panama. Using a model-averaging approach, we related wood density, seed mass, leaf mass per area and adult stature (maximum diameter) to onset of reproduction, seed production, seedling establishment, and growth and survival at seedling, sapling and adult stages. Three of the four traits analysed here (wood density, seed mass and adult stature) typically explained 20–60% of interspecific variation at a given vital rate and life stage. There were strong shifts in the importance of different traits throughout the life cycle of trees, with seed mass and adult stature being most important early in life, and wood density becoming most important after establishment. Every trait had opposing effects on different vital rates or at different life stages; for example, seed mass was associated with higher seedling establishment and lower initial survival, wood density with higher survival and lower growth, and adult stature with decreased juvenile but increased adult growth and survival. Forest dynamics are driven by the combined effects of all demographic processes across the full life cycle. Application of a multitrait and full-life cycle approach revealed the full role of key traits, and illuminated how trait effects on demography change through the life cycle. The effects of traits on one life stage or vital rate were sometimes offset by opposing effects at another stage, revealing the danger of drawing broad conclusions about functional trait–demography relationships from analysis of a single life stage or vital rate. Robust ecological and evolutionary conclusions about the roles of functional traits rely on an understanding of the relationships of traits to vital rates across all life stages.

Usage notes


Barro Colorado Island