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Widespread variation in functional trait-vital rate relationships in tropical tree seedlings across a precipitation and soil phosphorus gradient

Citation

Browne, Luke et al. (2022), Widespread variation in functional trait-vital rate relationships in tropical tree seedlings across a precipitation and soil phosphorus gradient, Dryad, Dataset, https://doi.org/10.5061/dryad.mkkwh713s

Abstract

A fundamental assumption of functional ecology is that functional traits are related to interspecific variation in performance. However, the relationship between functional traits and performance is often weak or uncertain, especially for plants. A potential explanation for this inconsistency is that the relationship between functional traits and vital rates (e.g., growth and mortality) is dependent on local environmental conditions, which would lead to variation in trait-rate relationships across environmental gradients. In this study, we examined trait-rate relationships for six functional traits (seed mass, wood density, maximum height, leaf mass per area, leaf area, and leaf dry matter content) using long-term data on seedling growth and survival of woody plant species from eight forest sites spanning a pronounced precipitation and soil phosphorus gradient in central Panama. For all traits considered except for leaf mass per area-mortality, leaf mass per area-growth, and leaf area-mortality relationships, we found widespread variation in the strength of trait-rate relationships across sites. For some traits, trait-rate relationships showed no overall trend but displayed wide site-to-site variation. In a small subset of cases, variation in trait-rate relationships was explained by soil phosphorus availability. Our results demonstrate that environmental gradients have the potential to influence how functional traits are related to growth and mortality rates, though much variation remains to be explained. Accounting for site-to-site variation may help resolve a fundamental issue in trait-based ecology – that traits are often weakly related to performance – and improve the utility of functional traits for explaining key ecological and evolutionary processes.

Funding

Natural Environment Research Council, Award: NE/J011169/1

National Science Foundation, Award: 1623775

National Science Foundation, Award: 1845403

Yale University

Ohio State University