, Volume 180, Issue 4, pp 923–931 | Cite as

Reinforcing loose foundation stones in trait-based plant ecology

  • Bill ShipleyEmail author
  • Francesco De Bello
  • J. Hans C. Cornelissen
  • Etienne Laliberté
  • Daniel C. Laughlin
  • Peter B. Reich
Special Topic on Functional Traits


The promise of “trait-based” plant ecology is one of generalized prediction across organizational and spatial scales, independent of taxonomy. This promise is a major reason for the increased popularity of this approach. Here, we argue that some important foundational assumptions of trait-based ecology have not received sufficient empirical evaluation. We identify three such assumptions and, where possible, suggest methods of improvement: (i) traits are functional to the degree that they determine individual fitness, (ii) intraspecific variation in functional traits can be largely ignored, and (iii) functional traits show general predictive relationships to measurable environmental gradients.


Comparative ecology Functional ecology Intraspecific variation Environmental gradients 



This paper has benefited from the comments of Éric Garnier, Sandra Díaz, Phillip Grime, Sandra Lavorel, Hendrik Poorter, Ian Wright, and two anonomous reviewers. Financing was provided by an NSERC Discovery Grant to BS.

Author contribution statement

BS wrote the first draft of this paper and coordinated the subsequent changes. All other authors contributed equally to the subsequent drafts.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  • Bill Shipley
    • 1
    Email author
  • Francesco De Bello
    • 2
    • 3
  • J. Hans C. Cornelissen
    • 4
  • Etienne Laliberté
    • 5
  • Daniel C. Laughlin
    • 6
  • Peter B. Reich
    • 7
    • 8
  1. 1.Département de BiologieUniversité de SherbrookeSherbrookeCanada
  2. 2.FdB Institute of BotanyAcademy of Sciences of the Czech RepublicTřeboňCzech Republic
  3. 3.Department of BotanyUniversity of South BohemiaČeské BudějoviceCzech Republic
  4. 4.Systems Ecology, Department of Ecological ScienceFALW, VU UniversityAmsterdamThe Netherlands
  5. 5.Institut de Recherche en Biologie Végétale (IRBV)Université de MontréalMontréalCanada
  6. 6.Environmental Research Institute and School of ScienceUniversity of WaikatoHamiltonNew Zealand
  7. 7.Department of Forest ResourcesUniversity of MinnesotaSt. PaulUSA
  8. 8.Hawkesbury Institute for the EnvironmentUniversity of Western SydneyPenrithAustralia

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