Towards a trait-based quantification of species niche

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Abstract

Aims

Although the niche concept is of prime importance in ecology, the quantification of plant species' niches remains difficult. Here we propose that plant functional traits, as determinants of species performance, may be useful tools for quantifying species niche parameters over environmental gradients.

Important findings

Under this framework, the mean trait values of a species determine its niche position along gradients, and intraspecific trait variability determines its niche breadth. This trait-based approach can provide an operational assessment of niche for a potentially large number of species, making it possible to understand and predict species niche shifts under environmental changes. We further advocate a promising method that recently appeared in the literature, which partitions trait diversity into among- and within-community components as a way to quantify the species niche in units of traits instead of environmental parameters. This approach allows the switch of the focus from ecological niches to trait niches, facilitating the examination of species coexistence along undefined environmental gradients. Altogether, the trait-based approach provides a promising toolkit for quantifying the species ecological niche and for understanding the evolution of species niche and traits.

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