Whole-plant trait spectra of North American woody plant species reflect fundamental ecological strategies

Ulrike Stahl, Jens Kattge, Björn Reu, Winfried Voigt, Kiona Ogle, John Dickie, Christian Wirth

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

57 Scopus citations


The adaptation of plant species to their biotic and abiotic environment is manifested in their traits. Suites of correlated functional traits may reflect fundamental tradeoffs and general plant strategies and hence represent trait spectra along which plant species can vary according to their respective strategies. However, the functional interpretation of these trait spectra requires the inspection of their relation to plant performance. We employed principle coordinate analysis (PCoA) to quantify fundamental whole-plant trait spectra based on 23 traits for 305 North American woody species that span boreal to subtropical climates. We related the major axes of PCoA to five measures of plant performance (i.e., growth rate, and tolerance to drought, shade, water-logging and fire) for all species and separately for gymnosperms and angiosperms. Across all species a unified gymnosperm-angiosperm trait spectrum (wood density, seed mass, rooting habit) is identified, which is correlated with drought tolerance. Apart from this, leaf type and specific leaf area (SLA) strongly separate gymnosperms from angiosperms. For gymnosperms, one trait spectrum emerges (seed mass, rooting habit), which is positively correlated with drought tolerance and inversely with shade tolerance, reflecting a tradeoff between these two strategies due to opposing trait characteristics. Angiosperms are functionally more diverse. The trait spectra related to drought tolerance and shade tolerance are decoupled and three distinct strategies emerge: high drought tolerance (low SLA, dense wood, heavy seeds, taproot), high shade tolerance (high SLA, shallow roots, high toxicity, opposite arranged leaves), and fast growth/stress intolerance (large maximum heights, soft wood, light seeds, high seed spread rate). In summary, our approach reveals that complex suits of traits and potential tradeoffs underlie fundamental performance strategies in forests. Studies relying on small sets of plant traits may not be able to reveal such underlying strategies.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number128
Issue number10
StatePublished - Oct 25 2013
Externally publishedYes


  • Drought tolerance
  • Forests
  • Ordinal-scaled traits
  • Plant performance
  • Plant strategies
  • Principle coordinate analysis
  • Shade tolerance
  • Trait tradeoffs
  • Vital rates

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Ecology


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