Relating leaf traits to seedling performance in a tropical forest: building a hierarchical functional framework
Trait-based approaches have been extensively used in community ecology to provide a mechanistic understanding of the drivers of community assembly. However, a foundational assumption of the trait framework, traits relate to performance, has been mainly examined through univariate relationships that simplify the complex phenotypic integration of organisms. We evaluate a conceptual framework in which traits are organized hierarchically combining trait information at the individual- and species-level from biomass allocation and organ-level traits. We focus on photosynthetic traits and predict that the positive effects of increasing plant leaf mass on growth depend on species-level leaf traits. We modeled growth data on more than 1,500 seedlings from 97 seedling species from a tropical forest in China. We found that seedling growth increases with allocation to leaves (high leaf area ratio and leaf mass fraction) and this effect is accentuated for species with high specific leaf area and leaf area. Also, we found that light has a significant effect on growth, and this effect is additive with leaf allocation traits. Our work offers an approach to gain further understanding of the effects of traits on the whole plant-level growth via a hierarchical framework including organ-level and biomass allocation traits at species and individual levels.