, Volume 186, Issue 3, pp 783–792 | Cite as

Functional traits can improve our understanding of niche- and dispersal-based processes

  • Feng Jiang
  • Yanhan Xun
  • Huiying Cai
  • Guangze JinEmail author
Community ecology – original research


Ecologists often determine the relative importance of niche- and dispersal-based processes via variation partitioning based on species composition. Functional traits and their proxies of phylogeny are expected to increase the detection of niche-based processes and reduce the unexplained variation relative to species identity. We collected eight adult tree traits and phylogenetic data of 41 species and employed a phylogenetic fuzzy weighting method to address this issue in a 9-ha temperate forest dynamics plot. We used redundancy analysis to relate species, phylogenetic and functional compositions to environmental (soil resources and topography) and spatial variables. We also performed multi-scaled analyses on spatial variables by adding environment as the covariates to determine if functional traits increase the detection of niche-based processes at broad scales. The functional traits and intraspecific variation of the wood density among ontogenetic stages could dramatically increase the detection of niche-based processes and reduce the unexplained variation relative to species identity. Phylogenetic and functional compositions were mainly driven by total soil P and elevation, while species composition was weakly affected by multiple environmental variables. After controlling for the environment, a larger amount of the compositional variations in seed mass and maximum height were explained by finer-scaled spatial variables, indicating that dispersal processes may be important at fine spatial scales. Our results suggested that considering functional traits and their intraspecific variations could improve our understanding of ecological processes and increase our ability to predict the responses of plants to environmental change.


Intraspecific trait variation Maximum height Phylogenetic fuzzy weighting Seed mass Variation partitioning 



This study was financially supported by the National Natural Science Foundation of China (no. 31730015, National Natural Science Foundation of China), the Strategic Priority Research Program of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (XDPB0203, Chinese Academy of Sciences) and the Fundamental Research Funds for the Central Universities (2572017EA02, Northeast Forestry University). We thank the editor and two anonymous reviewers for the constructive comments that improved the quality of the manuscript. We also thank Dr. Leandro D.S. Duarte for the help and suggestions for the calculations of the phylogenetic fuzzy weighting approach, and Dr. Jinlong Zhang and Dr. Robert Muscarella for providing suggestions on the construction of the phylogenetic tree.

Author contribution statement

FJ and GZJ conceived the idea. FJ, YHX and HYC collected the soil, topological and traits data. FJ analyzed the data. FJ and GZJ wrote the manuscript; other authors provided editorial advice.

Supplementary material

442_2018_4060_MOESM1_ESM.doc (4.4 mb)
Supplementary material 1 (DOC 4526 kb)


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Copyright information

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

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Center for Ecological ResearchNortheast Forestry UniversityHarbinChina

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