The role of functional uniqueness and spatial aggregation in explaining rarity in trees

María Natalia Umaña, Xiangcheng Mi, Min Cao, Brian J. Enquist, Zhanqing Hao, Robert Howe, Yoshiko Iida, Daniel Johnson, Luxiang Lin, Xiaojuan Liu, Keping Ma, I. Fang Sun, Jill Thompson, Maria Uriarte, Xugao Wang, Amy Wolf, Jie Yang, Jess K. Zimmerman, Nathan G. Swenson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

25 Scopus citations


Aim: Determining the drivers of species rarity is fundamental for understanding and conserving biodiversity. Rarity of a given species within its community may arise due to exclusion by other ecologically similar species. Conversely, rare species may occupy habitats that are rare in the landscape or they may be ill-suited to all available habitats. The first mechanism would lead to common and rare species occupying similar ecological space defined by functional traits. The second mechanism would result in common and rare species occupying dissimilar ecological space and spatial aggregation of rare species, either because they are specialists in rare habitats or because rare species tend to be dispersal limited. Here, we quantified the contribution of locally rare species to community functional richness and the spatial aggregation of species across tree communities world-wide to address these hypotheses. Location: Asia and the Americas. Time period: 2002 to 2012 (period that considers the censuses for the plots used). Major taxa studied: Angiosperm and Gymnosperm trees. Methods: We compiled a dataset of functional traits from all the species present in eight tree plots around the world to evaluate the contribution of locally rare species to tree community functional richness using multi- and univariate approaches. We also quantified the spatial aggregation of individuals within species at several spatial scales as it relates to abundance. Results: Locally rare tree species in temperate and tropical forests tended to be functionally unique and are consistently spatially clustered. Furthermore, there is no evidence that this pattern is driven by pioneer species being locally rare. Main conclusions: This evidence shows that locally rare tree species disproportionately contribute to community functional richness, and we can therefore reject the hypothesis that locally rare species are suppressed by ecologically similar, but numerically dominant, species. Rather, locally rare species are likely to be specialists on spatially rare habitats or they may be ill-suited to the locally available environments.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)777-786
Number of pages10
JournalGlobal Ecology and Biogeography
Issue number7
StatePublished - Jul 2017


  • functional diversity
  • functional traits
  • species relative abundance
  • temperate forests
  • tree diversity
  • tropical forests

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Global and Planetary Change
  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Ecology


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