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Intraspecific variability improves environmental matching, but does not increase ecological breadth along a wet-to-dry ecotone.

Mitchell, R. M., Wright, J. P., & Ames, G. M. . 2016.


It is widely assumed that higher levels of intraspecific variability in one or more traits should allow species to persist under a wider range of environmental conditions. However, few studies have examined whether species that exhibit high variability are found in a wider range of environmental conditions, and whether variability increases the ability of a species to adapt to prevailing ecological gradients. We used four plant functional traits, specific leaf area (SLA), leaf dry matter content (LDMC), leaf carbon to nitrogen ratio (C:N) and maximum plant height in 49 species across a strong environmental gradient to answer three questions: 1) is there evidence for 'high-variability' species (that is, species which show high variability in multiple traits, simultaneously)? 2) are species with more variable traits present across a wider range of environmental conditions than less variable species? And 3) whether more variable species show better trait- environment matching to the prevailing abiotic (soil moisture) gradient at the site? We found little evidence for a 'high-variability' species. Variability was correlated for two leaf traits, SLA and LDMC, while variability in leaf traits and plant height were not correlated. We found little evidence that more variable species were present in more diverse conditions: only variation in SLA was correlated with a wider ecological niche breadth. For plant traits along the soil-moisture gradient, higher variability led to better trait- environment matching in half of measured traits. Overall, we found little support for the existence of 'high-variability' species, but that variability in SLA is correlated with a wider ecological breadth. We also found evidence that variation in traits can improve trait- environment matching, a relationship which may facilitate our understanding ecological breadth along prevailing gradients, and community assembly on the basis of traits.