On the link between functional traits and growth rate: meta-analysis shows effects change with plant size, as predicted

Anaïs Gibert*, Emma F. Gray, Mark Westoby, Ian J. Wright, Daniel S. Falster

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

114 Citations (Scopus)


A plant's growth rate is seen as a central element of its ecological strategy, and as determined by its traits. Yet the literature is inconsistent about the empirical correlation between functional traits and growth, casting doubt on the capacity of some prominent traits to influence growth rate. We propose that traits should influence growth in a way that depends on the size of individual plants. We outline mechanisms and hypotheses based on new theoretical work and test these predictions in tree species using a meta-analysis of 103 studies (> 500 correlations) for five traits (specific leaf area, wood density, maximum height, seed mass and maximum assimilation rate). We also recorded data for 14 other traits commonly used in the trait literature. To capture the effects of plant size, we tested for a shift in the direction of correlation between growth rates and each trait across three ontogenetic stages: seedling, sapling and adult. Results were consistent with predictions, although there were some limitations arising from unequal numbers of observation across ontogenetic stages. Specific leaf area was correlated with relative growth rate in seedlings but not in adult plants. Correlations of growth with wood density were not affected by ontogenetic stage. Seed mass, assimilation rate and maximum height were correlated with relative growth rate only in one ontogenetic stage category: seedlings, seedlings and adults, respectively. Although we were able to confirm several of our theoretical predictions, major knowledge gaps still exist in the trait literature. For example, for one-third of the traits considered, the majority (> 75%) of reported correlations with growth came from the same ontogenetic stage. Synthesis. We show for some traits, how trait–growth correlations change in a predictable way with plant size. Our understanding of plant strategies should shift away from describing species as having a fixed growth strategy throughout their life (on a continuous axis from slow to fast growth), in favour of a size-dependent growth trajectories.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1488-1503
Number of pages16
JournalJournal of Ecology
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - 1 Sept 2016


  • growth strategy
  • life-history traits
  • maximum height
  • ontogenetic stage
  • photosynthetic rate
  • plant development
  • seed mass
  • specific leaf area
  • wood density


Dive into the research topics of 'On the link between functional traits and growth rate: meta-analysis shows effects change with plant size, as predicted'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this