Opposing assembly mechanisms in a Neotropical dry forest: Implications for phylogenetic and functional community ecology

Nathan G. Swenson, Brian J. Enquist

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

294 Scopus citations


Species diversity is promoted and maintained by ecological and evolutionary processes operating on species attributes through space and time. The degree to which variability in species function regulates distribution and promotes coexistence of species has been debated. Previous work has attempted to quantify the relative importance of species function by using phylogenetic relatedness as a proxy for functional similarity. The key assumption of this approach is that function is phylogenetically conserved. If this assumption is supported, then the phylogenetic dispersion in a community should mirror the functional dispersion. Here we quantify functional trait dispersion along several key axes of tree life-history variation and on multiple spatial scales in a Neotropical dry-forest community. We next compare these results to previously reported patterns of phylogenetic dispersion in this same forest. We find that, at small spatial scales, coexisting species are typically more functionally clustered than expected, but traits related to adult and regeneration niches are overdispersed. This outcome was repeated when the analyses were stratified by size class. Some of the trait dispersion results stand in contrast to the previously reported phylogenetic dispersion results. In order to address this inconsistency we examined the strength of phylogenetic signal in traits at different depths in the phylogeny. We argue that: (1) while phylogenetic relatedness may be a good general multivariate proxy for ecological similarity, it may have a reduced capacity to depict the functional mechanisms behind species coexistence when coexisting species simultaneously converge and diverge in function; and (2) the previously used metric of phylogenetic signal provided erroneous inferences about trait dispersion when married with patterns of phylogenetic dispersion.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2161-2170
Number of pages10
Issue number8
StatePublished - Aug 2009


  • Community ecology
  • Costa Rica
  • Forest ecology
  • Functional diversity
  • Functional ecology
  • Neotropical dry forest
  • Spatial scale
  • Tropical forest dynamics plot

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


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