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Disentangling the relative importance of species occurrence, abundance and intraspecific variability in community assembly: a trait‐based approach at the whole‐plant level in Mediterranean forests

Riva, Enrique G., Pérez‐Ramos, Ignacio M., Tosto, Ambra, Navarro‐Fernández, Carmen M., Olmo, Manuel, Marañón, Teodoro, Villar, Rafael
Oikos 2016 v.125 no.3 pp. 354-363
edaphic factors, forest communities, forests, intraspecific variation, leaves, models, roots, soil water, soil water storage, stems, variance, Spain
Understanding which factors and rules govern the process of assembly in communities constitutes one of the main challenges of plant community ecology. The presence of certain functional strategies along broad environmental gradients can help to understand the patterns observed in community assembly and the filtering mechanisms that take place. We used a trait‐based approach, quantifying variations in aboveground (leaf and stem) and belowground (root) functional traits along environmental gradients in Mediterranean forest communities (south Spain). We proposed a new practical method to quantify the relative importance of species turnover (distinguishing between species occurrence and abundance) versus intraspecific variation, which allowed us to better understand the assemblage rules of these plant communities along environmental gradients. Our results showed that the functional structure of the studied plant communities was highly determined by soil environment. Results from our modelling approach based on maximum likelihood estimators showed a predominant influence of soil water storage on most of the community functional traits. We found that changes in community functional structure along environmental gradients were mainly promoted by species turnover rather than by intraspecific variability. Specifically, our new method of variance decomposition demonstrated that between‐site trait variation was the result of changes in species occurrence rather than in the abundance of certain dominant species. In conclusion, this study showed that water availability promoted the predominance of specific trait values (both in above and belowground fractions) associated to a resource acquisition or conservation strategy. In addition, we provided evidence that changes on community functional structure along the environmental gradient were mainly promoted by a process of species replacement, which represent a crucial step towards a more general understanding of the relative importance of intraspecific versus interspecific trait variation in these woody Mediterranean communities.