Is the abundance of species determined by their functional traits? A new method with a test using plant communities.

Research paper by David D Mouillot, Norman W H NW Mason, J Bastow JB Wilson

Indexed on: 22 Mar '07Published on: 22 Mar '07Published in: Oecologia


The relation between functional traits and abundance of species has the potential to provide evidence on the mechanisms that structure local ecological communities. The niche-limitation/limiting-similarity hypothesis, derived from MacArthur and Levins' original concept, predicts that species that are similar to others in terms of functional traits will suffer greater competition and hence be less abundant. On the other hand, the environment-filtering/habitat-optimum hypothesis predicts that groups of species with functional traits that are close to the optimum for that environment, and are therefore similar to other species, will be more abundant. We propose a new niche-assembly model for predicting the relative abundance of species in communities from their functional traits, which can detect the patterns that would be expected from either of these hypotheses. The model was fitted to eight plant communities sampled in the Lake Ohau district of New Zealand. For seven of the sites, the patterns could not be distinguished from that expected under a null model. However, in one site there was highly significant departure from the null model in the direction expected from the niche-limitation hypothesis. The site was probably the most productive of those examined. It is possible that competition for light rather than belowground resources, or faster recovery from disturbance, allowed greater predictability. Surprisingly, the predictability was seen when just the presences of a species' neighbours in trait space were taken into account, but not when the potential effects of those neighbours were weighted by their abundance. For three of the four model types, the effects of species on each other were consistently negative: a significant trend. These results contradict the various neutral models of ecological communities.