Traits, strategies, and niches of liana species in a tropical seasonal rainforest

Plant functional traits and strategies hold the promise to explain species distribution, but few studies have linked multiple traits to multiple niche dimensions (i.e., light, water, and nutrients). Here, we analyzed for 29 liana species in a Chinese tropical seasonal rainforest how: (1) trait associations and trade-offs lead to different plant strategies; and (2) how these traits shape species’ niche dimensions. Eighteen functional traits related to light, water, and nutrient use were measured and species niche dimensions were quantified using species distribution in a 20-ha plot combined with data on canopy gaps, topographic water availability, and soil nutrients. We found a tissue toughness spectrum ranging from soft to hard tissues along which species also varied from acquisitive to conservative water use, and a resource acquisition spectrum ranging from low to high light capture and nutrient use. Intriguingly, each spectrum partly reflected the conservative–acquisitive paradigm, but at the same time, the tissue toughness and the resource acquisition spectrum were uncoupled. Resource niche dimensions were better predicted by individual traits than by multivariate plant strategies. This suggests that trait components that underlie multivariate strategy axes, rather than the plant strategies themselves determine species distributions. Different traits were important for different niche dimensions. In conclusion, plant functional traits and strategies can indeed explain species distributions, but not in a simple and straight forward way. Although the identification of global plant strategies has significantly advanced the field, this research shows that global, multivariate generalizations are difficult to translate to local conditions, as different components of these strategies are important under different local conditions.

Liu, Q., F. J. Sterck, J.-L. Zhang, A. Scheire, E. Konings, M. Cao, L.-Q. Sha, and L. Poorter