Plant species differ in how they influence many aspects of ecosystem structure and function, including soil characteristics, geomorphology, biogeochemistry, regional climate, and the activity and distribution of other organisms. Attempts to generalize plant species effects on ecosystems have focused on single traits or suites of traits that strongly covary (functional groups). However, plant effects on any ecosystem process are mediated by multiple traits, and many of these traits vary independently from one another. Thus, most species have unique combinations of traits that influence ecosystems, and there is no single trait or functional-group classification that can capture the effects of these multiple traits, or can predict the multiple functions performed by different plant species.

We present a new theoretical framework, the functional matrix, which builds upon the functional group and single trait approaches to account for the ecosystem effects of multiple traits that vary independently among species. The functional matrix describes the relationship between ecosystem processes and multiple traits, treating traits as continuous variables, and determining if the effects of these multiple traits are additive or interactive. The power of this approach is that the ecosystem effects of multiple traits are the underlying mechanisms determining species effects, how the effects of an individual species change across seasons and under varying environmental conditions, the nonadditive effects of plant species mixtures, and the effects of species diversity.


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  • Article Type: Review Article
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