Vascular plants have been found to align along globally-recognised resource-allocation trade-offs among specific functional traits. Genetic constrains and environmental pressures limit the spectrum of viable resource-use strategies employed by plant species. While conspecific plants have often been described as identical, intraspecific variation facilitates species coexistence and evolutionary potential. This study attempts to link an individual's phenotype to its environmental tolerance and ecosystem function. We hypothesised that: (1) seasonal variation in water availability has selected for tight phenotypic integration patterns that shape Mediterranean vegetation; however, (2) coexisting species employ alternative resource-use strategies to avoid competitive exclusion; specifically (3) species with smaller climatic niches (i.e. potential distributions) display higher functional diversity. We examined the interdependence among and the sources of variation within 11 functional traits, reflecting whole-plant economics (e.g. construction costs, hydraulics, defences, water storage capacity), from nine dominant, thermo-Mediterranean species measured across a wide environmental and geographic gradient. Furthermore, we delineated the phenotypic and climatic hypervolumes of each studied species to test for climatic niche overlap and functional distinctiveness. By adopting this multidimensional trait-based approach we detected fundamental phenotypic integration patterns that define thermo-Mediterranean species regardless of life history strategy. The studied traits emerged intercorrelated shaping a resource-allocation spectrum. Significant intraspecific variability in most measured traits allowed for functional distinctiveness among the measured species. Higher functional diversity was observed in species restricted within narrower climatic niches. Our results support our initial hypotheses. The studied functional traits collectively formed an integrated space of viable phenotypic expressions; however, phenotypic plasticity enables functionally distinctive species to succeed complementary in a given set of environmental conditions. Functional variability among coexisting individuals defined species' climatic niches within the trait-spectrum permitted by Mediterranean conditions. Ultimately, a species establishment in a locality depends on the extent that it can shift its trait values.
Science of the Total Environment – Elsevier
Published: Jul 1, 2019
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