, Volume 5, Issue 1, pp 83-98
Date: 03 Nov 2010

Trait response in communities to environmental change: effect of interspecific competition and trait covariance structure

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The response of ecological communities to environmental disturbances depends not just on the number of species they contain but also on the functional diversity of the constituent species; greater variation in the tolerance of species to different environmental disturbances is generally thought to confer greater resistance to the community. Here, I investigate how the functional diversity of communities changes with environmental disturbances. Specifically, I assume that there is variation in traits among species that confer tolerance or sensitivity to environmental disturbances. When a disturbance occurs, variation in species tolerances causes changes in the relative abundances of species, which in turn changes the average tolerance of the community. For example, if tolerance to an environmental disturbance is conferred by large body size, then the environmental disturbance should be expected to increase the average body size of individuals in the community. Despite this expectation, ecological interactions among species can affect the average community response. For example, if larger species are also strong competitors with each other, then this might reduce the increase in average body size in the community, because interspecific competition limits the grow in population density of large bodied species. Similarly, when disturbances affect multiple traits, the covariance in the distribution of trait values among species may restrict the response of any one trait; if two traits provide tolerance to the same disturbance but negatively covary among species, then the response of one trait will limit the response of the other trait at the community level. Using a Lotka–Volterra model for competitive communities, I derive general formulae that generate explicit predictions about the changes in average trait values in a community subject to environmental disturbances. These formulae demonstrate that competition can impede the change in average community trait values. However, the impediment is not considerable in comparison to the predominant factors of trait variances and species selection effects when species with the most similar trait values also experience the greatest interspecific competition. Similarly, negative covariances among different traits that confer resistance to the same environmental disturbance will impede their responses. I illustrate these results using phytoplankton data from a whole-lake experiment in which manipulation to the zooplankton community created a disturbance to the phytoplankton that changed the selective consumption of large vs. small phytoplankton.