The ecology of differences: assessing community assembly with trait and evolutionary distances

Ecol Lett. 2013 Oct;16(10):1234-44. doi: 10.1111/ele.12161. Epub 2013 Aug 4.


Species enter and persist in local communities because of their ecological fit to local conditions, and recently, ecologists have moved from measuring diversity as species richness and evenness, to using measures that reflect species ecological differences. There are two principal approaches for quantifying species ecological differences: functional (trait-based) and phylogenetic pairwise distances between species. Both approaches have produced new ecological insights, yet at the same time methodological issues and assumptions limit them. Traits and phylogeny may provide different, and perhaps complementary, information about species' differences. To adequately test assembly hypotheses, a framework integrating the information provided by traits and phylogenies is required. We propose an intuitive measure for combining functional and phylogenetic pairwise distances, which provides a useful way to assess how functional and phylogenetic distances contribute to understanding patterns of community assembly. Here, we show that both traits and phylogeny inform community assembly patterns in alpine plant communities across an elevation gradient, because they represent complementary information. Differences in historical selection pressures have produced variation in the strength of the trait-phylogeny correlation, and as such, integrating traits and phylogeny can enhance the ability to detect assembly patterns across habitats or environmental gradients.

Keywords: Biodiversity; biodiversity-ecosystem function; community assembly; ecological gradients; functional diversity; null models; phylogenetic community ecology; phylogenetic diversity; trait divergence; trait-based ecology; traitgram.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Biodiversity*
  • Biological Evolution*
  • Ecology / methods*
  • Ecosystem
  • Models, Biological*