Niche differentiation along multiple functional-trait dimensions contributes to high local diversity of Euphorbiaceae in a tropical tree assemblage


  1. Understanding the mechanisms that drive community assembly in species-rich tropical forest remains a fundamental challenge in ecology. Here, we integrated multivariate functional trait dimensions, phylogeny and metabolomics to test fundamental predictions concerning the role of differentiation with respect to abiotic and biotic niche axes in the maintenance of high local diversity of woody plants in the Euphorbiaceae.
  2. We measured 40 functional traits related to resource acquisition, photosynthetic capacity, hydraulic efficiency and secondary-metabolite profiles generated using untargeted metabolomics in all 26 Euphorbiaceae species in a 20-ha forest dynamics plot in tropical southwestern China. We examined the correlation structure of 40 traits using a trait networking approach. We coupled these traits with variation in soil nutrients, light environment, soil water content and herbivore pressure within the plot to assess niche differentiation in space. We compared phylogenetic signal among multivariate trait dimensions and secondary metabolites to assess niche differentiation in evolutionary time.
  3. Network analysis revealed that a small number of traits with high network centrality reflected variation in ecological strategy among the Euphorbiaceae. Using these high-centrality traits, we observed significant functional turnover along environmental gradients defined by light, soil moisture, soil nutrients and leaf herbivory, respectively. Most resource utilization traits showed significant phylogenetic signal, whereas almost all defensive traits lacked phylogenetic signal, including species similarity with respect to plant secondary metabolites.
  4. Synthesis. Our results suggest that resource-utilization traits and the habitat associations play a significant role in the niche segregation of co-occurring woody plants in the Euphorbiaceae. Secondary metabolites, however, may enhance diversity at a finer spatial scale by allowing closely related species with similar functional traits to partition biotic niche space within shared habitats in tropical rainforest.


Wang, X.-Z., Sun, S.-W., Sedio, B. E., Glomglieng, S., Cao, M., Cao, K.-F., Yang, J.-H., Zhang, J.-L., & Yang, J.
Journal of Ecology