The role of functional traits and individual variation in the co-occurrence of Ficus species
The processes that structure assemblages of species in hyper‐diverse genera, such as Ficus (Moraceae), are not well understood. Functional diversity of co‐occurring species can reveal evidence for assembly processes; however, intraspecific variation may weaken species‐level patterns. We studied whether functional and phylogenetic diversity of Ficus species indicated the effects of spatial variation in filters associated with topography or niche partitioning related to resource use and biotic interactions. We also asked whether individual trait patterns supported species‐level patterns. We studied six traits (leaf area, succulence, specific leaf area [SLA], maximum diameter breast high [dbh], fruit size, and latex exudation) for 22 Ficus species and 335 individuals ≥10 cm dbh on a 20‐ha forest plot in China. We found that higher elevation was correlated to changes in mean and reduced diversity of five traits, possibly due to frequent disturbances at higher elevations that favored fast‐growing, poorly defended species with high SLA. Maximum dbh showed phylogenetic conservatism but high diversity among co‐occurring species, suggesting adult stature is an important axis of within‐quadrat niche partitioning. At the individual level, trait patterns were qualitatively consistent but were stronger than species‐level patterns, especially for the leaf traits with the greatest intraspecific variation (SLA and succulence). Individual‐level SLA exhibited the strongest evidence for both traits among and within‐quadrat niche partitioning and indicated elevational filtering. Local niche partitioning and elevational filtering likely play an important role in maintaining species and functional diversity in the most speciose genus at our study site. Our results highlight the importance of individual variation, as it may reveal otherwise obscured niche effects.