On the modeling of tropical tree growth: the importance of intra-specific trait variation, non-linear functions and phenotypic integration

Background and Aims: The composition and dynamics of plant communities arise from individual-level demographic outcomes, which are driven by interactions between phenotypes and the environment. Functional traits that can be measured across plants are frequently used to model plant growth and survival. Perhaps surprisingly, species average trait values are often used in these studies and, in some cases, these trait values come from other regions or averages calculated from global databases. This data aggregation potentially results in a large loss of valuable information that probably results in models of plant performance that are weak or even misleading.

Methods: We present individual-level trait and fine-scale growth data from >500 co-occurring individual trees from 20 species in a Chinese tropical rain forest. We construct Bayesian models of growth informed by theory and construct hierarchical Bayesian models that utilize both individual- and species-level trait data, and compare these models with models only using individual-level data.

Key Results: We show that trait–growth relationships measured at the individual level vary across species, are often weak using commonly measured traits and do not align with the results of analyses conducted at the species level. However, when we construct individual-level models of growth using leaf area ratio approximations and integrated phenotypes, we generated strong predictive models of tree growth.

Conclusions: Here, we have shown that individual-level models of tree growth that are built using integrative traits always outperform individual-level models of tree growth that use commonly measured traits. Furthermore, individual-level models, generally, do not support the findings of trait–growth relationships quantified at the species level. This indicates that aggregating trait and growth data to the species level results in poorer and probably misleading models of how traits are related to tree performance.

Jie Yang, Xiaoyang Song, Min Cao, Xiaobao Deng, Wenfu Zhang, Xiaofei Yang, & Nathan G. Swenson
Annals of Botany