A roadmap to plant functional island biogeography

Julian Schrader*, Ian J. Wright, Holger Kreft, Mark Westoby

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    38 Citations (Scopus)
    23 Downloads (Pure)


    Island biogeography is the study of the spatio-temporal distribution of species, communities, assemblages or ecosystems on islands and other isolated habitats. Island diversity is structured by five classes of process: dispersal, establishment, biotic interactions, extinction and evolution. Classical approaches in island biogeography focused on species richness as the deterministic outcome of these processes. This has proved fruitful, but species traits can potentially offer new biological insights into the processes by which island life assembles and why some species perform better at colonising and persisting on islands.

    Functional traits refer to morphological and phenological characteristics of an organism or species that can be linked to its ecological strategy and that scale up from individual plants to properties of communities and ecosystems. A baseline hypothesis is for traits and ecological strategies of island species to show similar patterns as a matched mainland environment. However, strong dispersal, environmental and biotic-interaction filters as well as stochasticity associated with insularity modify this baseline. Clades that do colonise often embark on distinct ecological and evolutionary pathways, some because of distinctive evolutionary forces on islands, and some because of the opportunities offered by freedom from competitors or herbivores or the absence of mutualists. Functional traits are expected to be shaped by these processes.

    Here, we review and discuss the potential for integrating functional traits into island biogeography. While we focus on plants, the general considerations and concepts may be extended to other groups of organisms. We evaluate how functional traits on islands relate to core principles of species dispersal, establishment, extinction, reproduction, biotic interactions, evolution and conservation. We formulate existing knowledge as 33 working hypotheses. Some of these are grounded on firm empirical evidence, others provide opportunities for future research.

    We organise our hypotheses under five overarching sections. Section A focuses on plant functional traits enabling species dispersal to islands. Section B discusses how traits help to predict species establishment, successional trajectories and natural extinctions on islands. Section C reviews how traits indicate species biotic interactions and reproduction strategies and which traits promote intra-island dispersal. Section D discusses how evolution on islands leads to predictable changes in trait values and which traits are most susceptible to change. Section E debates how functional ecology can be used to study multiple drivers of global change on islands and to formulate effective conservation measures.

    Islands have a justified reputation as research models. They illuminate the forces operating within mainland communities by showing what happens when those forces are released or changed. We believe that the lens of functional ecology can shed more light on these forces than research approaches that do not consider functional differences among species.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)2851-2870
    Number of pages20
    JournalBiological Reviews
    Issue number6
    Early online date23 Aug 2021
    Publication statusPublished - Dec 2021

    Bibliographical note

    Copyright the Author(s) 2021. Version archived for private and non-commercial use with the permission of the author/s and according to publisher conditions. For further rights please contact the publisher.


    • community assembly
    • conservation
    • dispersal
    • evolution
    • extinction
    • functional diversity
    • functional ecology
    • island biogeography
    • species establishment
    • trait space


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