Fundamental species traits explain provisioning services of tropical American palms


The well-being of the global human population rests on provisioning services delivered by 12% of the Earth's 400,000 plant species1. Plant utilization by humans is influenced by species traits24, but it is not well understood which traits underpin different human needs5. Here, we focus on palms (Arecaceae), one of the most economically important plant groups globally6, and demonstrate that provisioning services related to basic needs, such as food and medicine, show a strong link to fundamental functional and geographic traits. We integrate data from 2,201 interviews on plant utilization from three biomes in South America—spanning 68 communities, 43 ethnic groups and 2,221 plant uses—with a dataset of 4 traits (leaf length, stem volume, fruit volume, geographic range size) and a species-level phylogeny7. For all 208 palm species occurring in our study area, we test for relations between their traits and perceived value. We find that people preferentially use large, widespread species rather than small, narrow-ranged species, and that different traits are linked to different uses. Further, plant size and geographic range size are stronger predictors of ecosystem service realization for palm services related to basic human needs than less-basic needs (for example, ritual). These findings suggest that reliance on plant size and availability may have prevented our optimal realization of wild-plant services, since ecologically rare yet functionally important (for example, chemically) clades may have been overlooked. Beyond expanding our understanding of how local people use biodiversity in mega-diverse regions, our trait- and phylogeny-based approach helps to understand the processes that underpin ecosystem service realization, a necessary step to meet societal needs in a changing world with a growing human population5,8.

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Figure 1: Distribution of study communities.
Figure 2: Phylogenetic distribution of species' traits and of the contribution of 208 palm species to different ecosystem services in northwestern South America.
Figure 3: The hierarchy of human needs, species' traits, and ecosystem services.


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We thank the 68 study communities and participants of our fieldwork interviews. We are also grateful to our partner institutions and their research teams who dedicated resources to facilitate our research. We thank G. Galeano, R. Bernal, J.-C. Pintaud, R. Valencia, H. Navarrete, L. de La Torre, M. Moraes, B. Millán and R. Carrillo for their support and discussions. We extend our gratitude to J.C. Copete, M. Soto Gomez, N. Paniagua, L. Camelo, R. Bussmann and M. Jaimes for assistance in fieldwork, to D. Warren for helpful discussions, to S. Cámara-Leret for contributing palm illustrations, and to I. Cámara-Leret for assistance with design and layout of figures. This study was funded by the European Union, 7th Framework Programme (FP7-PALMS-Contract no. 212631, to H.B.), and also supported by the Russell E. Train Education for Nature Program of the WWF, Anne S. Chatham Fellowship of the Garden Club of America, William L. Brown Center, Universidad Autónoma de Madrid travel grants programme, and a GSST fellowship of Aarhus University. J.-C.S. and B.G. were supported by the European Research Council (ERC-2012-StG-310886-HISTFUNC); C.H.S.-L. and N.R. by the People Programme (Marie Curie Actions) of the European Union's 7th Framework programme (FP7-PEOPLE-2012-IEF-328637 - BiodiversityAltitude); W.D.K. by the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (824.15.007) and the University of Amsterdam (starting grant); and H.B. by the Danish National Science Research Council (272-06-0476).

Author information




R.C.-L. and C.H.S.-L. conceived and designed the study. R.C.-L. and M.J.M. did the ethnobotanical fieldwork. R.C.-L., M.J.M., H.B., S.F., B.G. and W.D.K. provided data. R.C.-L., B.G. and H.B. built new geographic range maps. R.C.-L., C.H.S.-L. and S.F. analysed the data. R.C.-L. and C.H.S.-L. wrote the paper. All authors discussed the results and commented on the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Rodrigo Cámara-Leret.

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Cámara-Leret, R., Faurby, S., Macía, M. et al. Fundamental species traits explain provisioning services of tropical American palms. Nature Plants 3, 16220 (2017).

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