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1 June 2004 The plant traits that drive ecosystems: Evidence from three continents
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Question: A set of easily-measured (‘soft’) plant traits has been identified as potentially useful predictors of ecosystem functioning in previous studies. Here we aimed to discover whether the screening techniques remain operational in widely contrasted circumstances, to test for the existence of axes of variation in the particular sets of traits, and to test for their links with ‘harder’ traits of proven importance to ecosystem functioning.

Location: central-western Argentina, central England, northern upland Iran, and north-eastern Spain.

Recurrent patterns of ecological specialization: Through ordination of a matrix of 640 vascular plant taxa by 12 standardized traits, we detected similar patterns of specialization in the four floras. The first PCA axis was identified as an axis of resource capture, usage and release. PCA axis 2 appeared to be a size-related axis. Individual PCA for each country showed that the same traits remained valuable as predictors of resource capture and utilization in all of them, despite their major differences in climate, biogeography and land-use. The results were not significantly driven by particular taxa: the main traits determining PCA axis 1 were very similar in eudicotyledons and monocotyledons and Asteraceae, Fabaceae and Poaceae.

Links between recurrent suites of ‘soft’ traits and ‘hard’ traits: The validity of PCA axis 1 as a key predictor of resource capture and utilization was tested by comparisons between this axis and values of more rigorously established predictors (‘hard’ traits) for the floras of Argentina and England. PCA axis 1 was correlated with variation in relative growth rate, leaf nitrogen content, and litter decomposition rate. It also coincided with palatability to model generalist herbivores. Therefore, location on PCA axis 1 can be linked to major ecosystem processes in those habitats where the plants are dominant.

Conclusion: We confirm the existence at the global scale of a major axis of evolutionary specialization, previously recognised in several local floras. This axis reflects a fundamental trade-off between rapid acquisition of resources and conservation of resources within well-protected tissues. These major trends of specialization were maintained across different environmental situations (including differences in the proximate causes of low productivity, i.e. drought or mineral nutrient deficiency). The trends were also consistent across floras and major phylogenetic groups, and were linked with traits directly relevant to ecosystem processes.

Nomenclature: Bolòs et al. (1990); Flora Iranica (1963 onwards); Stace (1991); Zuloaga et al. (1994); Zuloaga & Morrone (1996, 1999).


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