Integrating phylogenetic community structure with species distribution models: an example with plants of rock barrens

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Approaches using phylogenetic pattern in ecological communities to deduce processes of community assembly have been criticised as disconnected from foundations in ecological mechanism, especially with respect to lack of data about abiotic and biotic niches. These criticisms can be addressed with analyses of organismal traits that underlie environmental filtering, competitive exclusion, and other candidate processes; however, the difficulty of assembling large trait databases means that such studies remain uncommon. We suggest a synthesis of phylogenetic community structure analysis and species distribution modeling that we believe can allow inference about community processes without prohibitive data requirements. We illustrate this method for angiosperm communities of rock barrens in eastern Canada. First, we analyzed phylogenetic community structure of four rock-barren sites at three nested spatial scales (quadrat to region). For the nine most common species in our barrens, we used regional occurrence records to build species distribution models identifying environmental drivers of the nine species’ distributions. Coefficients of these models represent implicit trait data that summarize each species’ response to the environmental drivers in the model. We then tested for phylogenetic signal in these traits, to ask whether ecological forces acting on them could be generating phylogenetic community structure. We found strong phylogenetic clustering at the quadrat level, while patterns at larger scales were complex. Our distribution model suggested drought stress as the dominant driver for distributions of all the species, consistent with local correlations with soil depth, and the species’ responses to drought showed strong phylogenetic signal. The convergence of results from phylogenetic community structure and species distribution modeling suggests that barren communities are structured at the quadrat level by environmental filtering effects of moisture stress, to which species have phylogenetically patterned responses.

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