, Volume 187, Issue 2, pp 561–571 | Cite as

Plant physical and chemical defence variation along elevation gradients: a functional trait-based approach

  • Alan Kergunteuil
  • Patrice Descombes
  • Gaetan Glauser
  • Loïc Pellissier
  • Sergio RasmannEmail author


Predicting variation in plant functional traits related to anti-herbivore defences remains a major challenge in ecological research, considering that multiple traits have evolved in response to both abiotic and biotic conditions. Therefore, understanding variation in plant anti-herbivore defence traits requires studying their expression along steep environmental gradients, such as along elevation, where multiple biotic and abiotic factors co-vary. We expand on plant defence theory and propose a novel conceptual framework to address the sources of variations of plant resistance traits at the community level. We analysed elevation patterns of within-community trait dissimilarity using the RaoQ index, and the community-weighted-mean (CWM) index, on several plant functional traits: plant height, specific leaf area (SLA), leaf-dry-matter-content (LDMC), silicium content, presence of trichomes, carbon-to-nitrogen ratio (CN) and total secondary metabolite richness. We found that at high elevation, where harsh environmental conditions persist, community functional convergence is dictated by traits relating to plant growth (plant height and SLA), while divergence arises for traits relating resource-use (LDMC). At low elevation, where greater biotic pressure occurs, we found a combination of random (plant height), convergence (metabolite richness) and divergence patterns (silicium content). This framework thus combines community assembly rules of ecological filtering and niche partition with plant defence hypotheses to unravel the relationship between environmental variations, biotic pressure and the average phenotype of plants within a community.


Environmental filtering Niche partitioning Alpine environment Secondary metabolites Leaf economic spectrum 



We thank Pascal Vittoz for providing vegetation data, Emilien Jolidon for helping with silicium analyses, and Adrienne Godschlax for commenting on the draft. This review and conceptual model was inspired by research projects on elevation gradients of plant–herbivore interaction that are funded by the Swiss national Science foundation to SR (31003A_159869 and PZ00P3_131956) and 31003A_162604 to LP.

Author contribution statement

SM originally formulated the ideas. SM and AK developed methodology. AK, LP, PD collected the data. GG, AK analyzed the data. SM and AK wrote the manuscript with the help of all co-authors

Supplementary material

442_2018_4162_MOESM1_ESM.docx (2.3 mb)
Supplementary material 1 (DOCX 2304 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institute of BiologyUniversity of NeuchâtelNeuchâtelSwitzerland
  2. 2.Landscape Ecology, Institute of Terrestrial EcosystemsETH ZurichZurichSwitzerland
  3. 3.Swiss Federal Research Institute WSLBirmensdorfSwitzerland
  4. 4.Neuchâtel Platform of Analytical ChemistryUniversity of NeuchâtelNeuchâtelSwitzerland

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