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Oecologia. 2012 Feb;168(2):519-31. doi: 10.1007/s00442-011-2112-z. Epub 2011 Sep 6.

Trait-based community assembly of understory palms along a soil nutrient gradient in a lower montane tropical forest.

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Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, Apartado 0843-03092, Balboa, Ancón, Republic of Panama.


Two opposing niche processes have been shown to shape the relationship between ecological traits and species distribution patterns: habitat filtering and competitive exclusion. Habitat filtering is expected to select for similar traits among coexisting species that share similar habitat conditions, whereas competitive exclusion is expected to limit the ecological similarity of coexisting species leading to trait differentiation. Here, we explore how functional traits vary among 19 understory palm species that differ in their distribution across a gradient of soil resource availability in lower montane forest in western Panama. We found evidence that habitat filtering influences species distribution patterns and shifts community-wide and intraspecific trait values. Differences in trait values among sites were more strongly related to soil nutrient availability than to variation in light or rainfall. Soil nutrient availability explained a significant amount of variation in site mean trait values for 4 of 15 functional traits. Site mean values of leaf nitrogen and phosphorus increased 37 and 64%, respectively, leaf carbon:nitrogen decreased 38%, and specific leaf area increased 29% with increasing soil nutrient availability. For Geonoma cuneata, the only species occurring at all sites, leaf phosphorus increased 34% and nitrogen:phosphorus decreased 42% with increasing soil nutrients. In addition to among-site variation, most morphological and leaf nutrient traits differed among coexisting species within sites, suggesting these traits may be important for niche differentiation. Hence, a combination of habitat filtering due to turnover in species composition and intraspecific variation along a soil nutrient gradient and site-specific niche differentiation among co-occurring species influences understory palm community structure in this lower montane forest.

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