Influence of four major plant traits on average height, leaf-area cover, net primary productivity, and biomass density in single-species forests: A theoretical investigation

Daniel S. Falster*, Åke Brännström, Ulf Dieckmann, Mark Westoby

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    90 Citations (Scopus)


    Numerous plant traits are known to influence aspects of individual performance, including rates of carbon uptake, tissue turnover, mortality and fecundity. These traits are bound to influence emergent properties of vegetation because quantities such as leaf-area cover, average height, primary productivity and density of standing biomass result from the collective behaviour of individuals. Yet, little is known about the influence of individual traits on these emergent properties, despite the widespread use in current vegetation models of plant functional types, each of which is defined by a constellation of traits. We examine the influence of four key traits (leaf economic strategy, height at maturation, wood density, and seed size) on four emergent vegetation properties (average height of leaf area, leaf-area index, net primary productivity and biomass density). We employ a trait-, size- and patch-structured model of vegetation dynamics that allows scaling up from individual-level growth processes and probabilistic disturbances to landscape-level predictions. A physiological growth model incorporating relevant trade-offs was designed and calibrated based on known empirical patterns. The resulting vegetation model naturally exhibits a range of phenomena commonly observed in vegetation dynamics. We modelled single-species stands, varying each trait over its known empirical range. Seed size had only a small effect on vegetation properties, primarily because our metapopulations were not seed-limited. The remaining traits all had larger effects on vegetation properties, especially on biomass density. Leaf economic strategy influenced minimum light requirement, and thus total leaf area and basal area. Wood density and height at maturation influenced vegetation mainly by modifying individual stem mass. These effects of traits were maintained, and sometimes amplified, across stands differing in productivity and mean disturbance interval. Synthesis: Natural trait variation can cause large differences in emergent properties of vegetation, the magnitudes of which approach those arising through changes to site productivity and disturbance frequency. Our results therefore underscore the need for next-generation vegetation models that incorporate functional traits together with their effects on the patch and size structure of vegetation.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)148-164
    Number of pages17
    JournalJournal of Ecology
    Issue number1
    Publication statusPublished - Jan 2011


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