Intra-specific and inter-specific variation in specific leaf area reveal the importance of abiotic and biotic drivers of species diversity across elevation and latitude

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Are patterns of intra- and inter-specific functional trait variation consistent with greater abiotic filtering on community assembly at high latitudes and elevations, and greater biotic filtering at low latitudes and elevations?


Area de Conservación Guanacaste, Costa Rica; Santa Catalina Mountains, Arizona; Siskiyou Mountains, Oregon.


We measured woody plant species abundance and a key functional trait associated with competition for resources and environmental tolerance (specific leaf area, SLA) along elevational gradients in low-latitude tropical (Costa Rica), mid-latitude desert (Arizona) and high latitude mediterranean (southern Oregon) biomes. We explored patterns of abiotic and biotic filtering by comparing observed patterns of community-weighted means and variances along elevational and latitudinal gradients to those expected under random assembly. In addition, we related trait variability to niches and explored how total trait space and breadth vary across broad spatial gradients by quantifying the ratio of intra- to inter-specific variation.


Both the community-wide mean and variance of SLA decreased with increasing latitude, consistent with greater abiotic filtering at higher latitudes. Further, low-elevation communities had higher trait variation than expected by chance, consistent with greater biotic filtering at low elevations. Finally, in the tropics and across latitude the ratio of intra- to inter-specific variation was negatively correlated to species richness, which further suggests that biotic interactions influence plant assembly at low latitudes.


Intra- and inter-specific patterns of SLA variation appeared broadly consistent with the idea that the relative strength of biotic and abiotic drivers on community assembly changes along elevational and latitudinal gradients; evidence for biotic drivers appeared more prominent at low latitudes and elevations and evidence for abiotic drivers appeared more prominent at high latitudes and elevations.

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