Every bit helps: The functional role of individuals in assembling any plant community, from the richest to monospecific ones
Plant trait-based ecology is a powerful extension of the attempt of community ecologists to unveil assembly mechanisms. However, the two main expected determinants of community assembly, niche and neutral processes, can be confused under this framework. Here, we propose to move from trait-based to phenotype-based community ecology, accounting for the variation between individuals (phenotypes affected by the abiotic and biotic environment, and vice versa), and explicitly considering their ability to compete with or facilitate its neighbours. This would shift our focus from species’ niche responses to niche specialization of phenotypes, reducing the space for neutrality at the finest scales. The current assembly framework, based mainly on niche complementarity and using species-average functional traits, has been developed exploring mega-diverse communities, but it fails at describing poor plant communities. Under this framework, monospecificity would be interpreted as an arena where functionally similar individuals compete, consequently leading to regular patterns, which are rarely found in nature. Our niche specialization framework could help explaining coexistence in rich plant communities, where the higher fraction of functional variation is found between species, whereas the intraspecific trait variation dominates in poor species and monospecific communities. We propose a guide to conduct massive phenotyping at the community scale based on the use of visible and near-infrared spectroscopy. We also discuss the need to integrate the so-called plant's eye perspective based on the use of spatial pattern statistics in the current community ecology toolbox.
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