Using plant functional traits and phylogenies to understand patterns of plant community assembly in a seasonal tropical forest in Lao PDR

Satdichanh, Manichanh; Millet, Jérôme; Heinimann, Andreas; Nanthavong, Khamseng; Harrison, Rhett D. (2015). Using plant functional traits and phylogenies to understand patterns of plant community assembly in a seasonal tropical forest in Lao PDR. PLoS ONE, 10(6), e0130151. Public Library of Science 10.1371/journal.pone.0130151

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Plant functional traits reflect different evolutionary responses to environmental variation, and among extant species determine the outcomes of interactions between plants and their environment, including other plant species. Thus, combining phylogenetic and trait-based information can be a powerful approach for understanding community assembly processes across a range of spatial scales. We used this approach to investigate tree community composition at Phou Khao Khouay National Park (18°14’-18°32’N; 102°38’- 102°59’E), Laos, where several distinct forest types occur in close proximity. The aim of our study was to examine patterns of plant community assembly across the strong environmental gradients evident at our site. We hypothesized that differences in tree community composition were being driven by an underlying gradient in soil conditions. Thus, we predicted that environmental filtering would predominate at the site and that the filtering would be strongest on sandier soil with low pH, as these are the conditions least favorable to plant growth. We surveyed eleven 0.25 ha (50x50 m) plots for all trees above 10 cm dbh (1221 individual trees, including 47 families, 70 genera and 123 species) and sampled soils in each plot. For each species in the community, we measured 11 commonly studied plant functional traits covering both the leaf and wood economic spectrum traits and we reconstructed a phylogenetic tree for 115 of the species in the community using rbcL and matK sequences downloaded from Genebank (other species were not available). Finally we compared the distribution of trait values and species at two scales (among plots and 10x10m subplots) to examine trait and phylogenetic community structures. Although there was strong evidence that an underlying soil gradient was determining patterns of species composition at the site, our results did not support the hypothesis that the environmental filtering dominated community assembly processes. For the measured plant functional traits there was no consistent pattern of trait dispersion across the site, either when traits were considered individually or when combined in a multivariate analysis. However, there was a significant correlation between the degree of phylogenetic dispersion and the first principle component axis (PCA1) for the soil parameters.Moreover, the more phylogenetically clustered plots were on sandier soils with lower pH. Hence, we suggest that the community assembly processes across our sitemay reflect the influence ofmore conserved traits that we did not measure. Nevertheless, our results are equivocal and other interpretations are possible. Our study illustrates some difficulties in combining trait and phylogenetic approaches that may result from the complexities of integrating spatial and evolutionary processes that vary at different scales.

Item Type:

Journal Article (Original Article)


08 Faculty of Science > Institute of Geography > Integrative Geography
08 Faculty of Science > Institute of Geography
10 Strategic Research Centers > Centre for Development and Environment (CDE)

UniBE Contributor:

Heinimann, Andreas


900 History > 910 Geography & travel




Public Library of Science




Stephan Schmidt

Date Deposited:

07 Jul 2015 07:48

Last Modified:

10 Sep 2017 10:06

Publisher DOI:


PubMed ID:





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