What factors potentially influence the ability of phylogenetic distance to predict trait dispersion in a temperate forest?
Although phylogenetic-based approaches have been frequently used to infer ecological processes, they have been increasingly criticized in recent years. To date, the factors that affect phylogenetic signals and further the ability of phylogenetic distance to predict trait dispersion have been assumed but not empirically tested. Therefore, we investigate which factors potentially influence the ability of phylogenetic distance to predict trait dispersion. We quantified the phylogenetic and trait dispersions across size classes and spatial scales in a 9-ha old-growth temperate forest dynamics plot in northeastern China. Phylogenetic signals at the community level were generally lower than those at the species pool level, and phylogenetically clustered communities showed lower phylogenetic signals than did overdispersed communities. This pattern might explain the other three findings of our study. First, phylogenetically overdispersed communities performed better at predicting trait dispersion than did clustered communities. Second, the mean pairwise distance (MPD)-based metric exhibited a stronger correlation with trait dispersion than did the mean nearest taxon distance (MNTD)-based metric. Finally, the MNTD-based metric showed that the prediction accuracy for trait dispersion decreased with increasing spatial scales, whereas its effects were weak on the MPD-based metric. In addition, phylogeny could not determine the dispersions of all functional axes but was able to predict certain traits depending on whether they were evolutionarily conserved. These results were conserved when we removed the effects of space and environment. Our findings highlighted that using phylogenetic distance as a proxy of trait similarity might work in a temperate forest depending on the species in local communities sampled from total pool as well as the traits measured. Utilizing these rules, we should rethink the conclusions of previous studies that were based on phylogenetic-based approaches.