In landscapes subject to intensive agriculture, both soil fertility and vegetation disturbance are capable of impacting strongly, evenly and simultaneously on the herbaceous plant cover and each tends to impose uniformity on the traits of constituent species. In more natural and ancient grasslands greater spatial and temporal variation in both productivity and disturbance occurs and both factors have been implicated in the maintenance of species-richness in herbaceous communities. However, empirical data suggest that disturbance is the more potent driver of trait differentiation and species co-existence at a local scale. This may arise from the great diversity in opportunities for establishment, growth or reproduction that arise when the intensity of competition is reduced by damage to the vegetation.
In contrast to the diversifying effects of local disturbances, productivity-related plant traits (growth rate, leaf longevity, leaf chemistry, leaf toughness, decomposition rate) appear to be less variable on a local scale. This difference in the effects of the productivity and disturbance filters arises from the relative constancy of productivity within the community and the diversity in agency and in spatial and temporal scales exhibited by disturbance events. Also, evolutionary responses to disturbances involve minor adaptive shifts in phenological and regenerative traits and are more likely to occur as micro-evolutionary steps than the shifts in linked traits in the core physiology associated with the capacity to exploit productive and unproductive habitats.
During the assembly of a community and over its subsequent lifespan filters with diversifying and convergent effects may operate simultaneously on recruitment from the local species pool and impose contrasted effects on the similarity of the trait values exhibited by co-existing species. Moreover, as a consequence of the frequent association of productivity with the convergence filter, an additional difference is predicted in terms of the effects of the two filters on ecosystem functioning. Convergence in traits selected by the productivity filter will exert effects on both the plant community and the ecosystem while divergent effects of the disturbance filter will be restricted to the plant community.