Friday, January 23, 2015

Equalizing and stabilizing traits?

Plant functional traits and the multidimensional nature of species coexistence. 2015. Nathan J. B. Kraft, Oscar Godoy, and Jonathan M. Levine. PNAS.

(This isn’t a brand new paper, but somehow I’m already behind on reading papers in the new year...) 
A recent paper from Kraft et al. in PNAS does a really nice job in filling a gap that has been in literature for a while, which is to extend the influential theoretical work on coexistence from Chesson (and extended more recently by Jonathan Levine et al.) to explicitly incorporate functional traits and trait-based approaches to ecology. Chesson’s work (particularly ARES 2000) lays out a framework for understanding coexistence and competitive interactions, which focuses on the importance of stabilizing effects (niche differences) and equalizing effects (fitness differences) between competing species (e.g.). This theory makes strong predictions of when and how coexistence is expected (for example, when species have strong enough niche differences). However, accurate application of the theory is somewhat difficult, perhaps because identifying and calculating niche and fitness differences requires heavy use of mathematical models and careful experimental design.

In contrast, the value of the focus on functional traits in ecology is that they are readily measured, easily conceptualized, and databases of values already exist. In common with equalizing/stabilizing effects, traits are meant to inform our understanding of species' niches, but in contrast, traits are empirically friendly. One of the more common critiques of the Chesson framework was that empirical measures, particularly traits, couldn't be shoehorned into it. After all, traits likely contribute to both equalizing and stabilizing forces in complicated ways that may well shift during a species' life.

What Nathan Kraft and coauthors have done is show that this is not a limitation - traits can contribute to both equalizing and stabilizing forces, and mathematical models can tease these effects apart. They relate detailed measurements of leaf, root, seed and whole plant traits for 18 California annual plants with the results of mathematical models of competition and coexistence between these species. The authors found strong and exciting relationships between the theoretically motivated measures of competitive processes and species' traits. Average fitness differences had significant correlations with functional traits, particularly maximum height, leaf [N], leaf area, rooting depth, and phenology.
From Kraft et al. 2015: Correlations between species traits and A) Stabilizing niche differences, and B) Average fitness differences.
The key to interpreting these plots is to understand that where the coloured line overlaps with the grey shading, the correlation is not different than the null model. When the line is between the null and the center of the figure, the correlation is significant and negative; where it is between the null and the external edge, the correlation is significant and positive.
No individual traits correlated with niche differences, but models including multiple traits considered together do correlate with niche differences. A rather nice bit of support for the multidimensional view of the niche.

This paper does a nice job of expanding Chesson's framework a little bit farther towards empirical applications. Further, it reinforces the value of trait approaches. There are still some important limitations - the first is that this particular system of annual plants has been studied in great detail. It seems unlikely that the traits identified in this paper can necessarily be generalized as "equalizing" traits. A trait with an equalizing effect in a California grassland may well contribute less to fitness in a desert system, for example. Perennial species are altogether less integrated into experimental applications of Chesson's framework (life time fitness, among other things, being much easier to capture in annual plants). But this paper is a suggestion of a useful way forward, albeit a way that requires much more data and careful experimentation. The authors acknowledge that more study is due, but also the potential: “These complex relationships argue against the simple use of single traits to infer community assembly processes but lay the foundation for a theoretically robust trait-based community ecology.”

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