Despite the increasing importance of functional traits for the study of plant ecology, we do not know how variation in a given trait changes across ecological scales, which prevents us from assessing potential scale-dependent aspects of trait variation. To address this deficiency, we partitioned the variance in two key functional traits (leaf mass area and leaf dry matter content) across six nested ecological scales (site, plot, species, tree, strata and leaf) in lowland tropical rainforests. In both traits, the plot level shows virtually no variance despite high species turnover among plots and the size of within-species variation (leaf + strata + tree) is comparable with that of species level variation. The lack of variance at the plot level brings substantial support to the idea that trait-based environmental filtering plays a central role in plant community assembly. These results and the finding that the amount of within-species variation is comparable with interspecific variation support a shift of focus from species-based to trait-based ecology.