Legume species differ in the responses of their functional traits to plant diversity
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- Roscher, C., Schmid, B., Buchmann, N. et al. Oecologia (2011) 165: 437. doi:10.1007/s00442-010-1735-9
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Plants can respond to environmental impacts by variation in functional traits, thereby increasing their performance relative to neighbors. We hypothesized that trait adjustment should also occur in response to influences of the biotic environment, in particular different plant diversity of the community. We used 12 legume species as a model and assessed their variation in morphological, physiological, life-history and performance traits in experimental grasslands of different plant species (1, 2, 4, 8, 16 and 60) and functional group (1–4) numbers. Mean trait values and their variation in response to plant diversity varied among legume species and from trait to trait. The tall-growing Onobrychis viciifolia showed little trait variation in response to increasing plant diversity, whereas the species with shorter statures responded in apparently adaptive ways. The formation of longer shoots with elongated internodes, increased biomass allocation to supporting tissue at the cost of leaf mass, reduced branching, higher specific leaf areas and lower foliar δ13C values indicated increasing efforts for light acquisition in more diverse communities. Although leaf nitrogen concentrations and shoot biomass:nitrogen ratios were not affected by increasing plant diversity, foliar δ15N values of most legumes decreased and the application of the 15N natural abundance method suggested that they became more reliant on symbiotic N2 fixation. Some species formed fewer inflorescences and delayed flowering with increasing community diversity. The observed variation in functional traits generally indicated strategies of legumes to optimize light and nutrient capturing, but they were largely species-dependent and only partly attributable to increasing canopy height and community biomass with increasing plant diversity. Thus, the analysis of individual plant species and their adjustment to growth conditions in communities of increasing plant diversity is essential to get a deeper insight into the mechanisms behind biodiversity–ecosystem functioning relationships.