, Volume 83, Issue 1–2, pp 49–69

A theory of the spatial and temporal dynamics of plant communities

  • Thomas Smith
  • Michael Huston


An individual-based model of plant competition for light that uses a definition of plant functional types based on adaptations for the simultaneous use of water and light can reproduce the fundamental spatial and temporal patterns of plant communities. This model shows that succession and zonation result from the same basic processes. Succession is interpreted as a temporal shift in species dominance, primarily in response to autogenic changes in light availability. Zonation is interpreted as a spatial shift in species dominance, primarily in response to the effect of allogenic changes in water availability on the dynamics of competition for light. Patterns of succession at different points along a moisture gradient can be used to examine changes in the ecological roles of various functional types, as well as to address questions of shifts in patterns of resource use through time.

Our model is based on the cost-benefit concept that plant adaptations for the simultaneous use of two or more resources are limited by physiological and life history constraints. Three general sets of adaptive constraints produce inverse correlations in the ability of plants to efficiently use (1) light at both high and low availability, (2) water at both high and low availability, and (3) both water and light at low availabilities.

The results of this type of individual-based model can be aggregated to examine phenomena at several levels of system organization (i.e., subdisciplines of ecology), including (1) plant growth responses over a range of environmental conditions, (2) population dynamics and size structure, (3) experimental and field observations on the distribution of species across environmental gradients, (4) studies of successional pattern, (5) plant physiognomy and community structure across environmental gradients, and (6) nutrient cycling.


Competition Individual-based model Plant functional type Resource gradient Succession Tradeoff Zonation 


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Copyright information

© Kluwer Academic Publishers 1989

Authors and Affiliations

  • Thomas Smith
    • 1
    • 2
  • Michael Huston
    • 1
  1. 1.Environmental Sciences DivisionOak Ridge National LaboratoryOak RidgeUSA
  2. 2.Department of Environmental Biology, Research School of Biological ScienceAustralian National UniversityCanberraAustralia
  3. 3.Department of Environmental Sciences, Clark HallUniversity of VirginiaCharlottesvilleUSA

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