The origins of agriculture were key events in human history, during which people came to depend for their food on small numbers of animal and plant species. However, the biological traits determining which species were domesticated for food provision, and which were not, are unclear. Here, we investigate the phylogenetic distribution of livestock and crops, and compare their phenotypic traits with those of wild species. Our results indicate that phylogenetic clustering is modest for crop species but more intense for livestock. Domesticated species explore a reduced portion of the phenotypic space occupied by their wild counterparts and have particular traits in common. For example, herbaceous crops are globally characterized by traits including high leaf nitrogen concentration and tall canopies, which make them fast-growing species and proficient competitors. Livestock species are relatively large mammals with low basal metabolic rates, which indicate moderate to slow life histories. Our study therefore reveals ecological differences in domestication potential between plants and mammals. Domesticated plants belong to clades with traits that are advantageous in intensively managed high-resource habitats, whereas domesticated mammals are from clades adapted to moderately productive environments. Combining comparative phylogenetic methods with ecologically relevant traits has proven useful to unravel the causes and consequences of domestication.

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Data availability

All phenotypic traits of mammalian species included in this study are available from the literature (see Methods). For plants, most data are available from the database TRY59 (https://www.try-db.org), and all original sources of TRY data are listed in Supplementary References 1. All references for data not included in TRY are available in the Supplementary References 2. Unpublished data owned by R.M. and J.M.B. are available from Supplementary Data 3. Unpublished data from the University of Sheffield database of weed functional attributes can be requested from G.J. Lists of livestock and crop taxa are available in Supplementary Table 1 and Supplementary Data 1, respectively. Phylogenetic trees used in this study are available in Supplementary Data 4. Data on geography and climate at domestication sites are available as Supplementary Data 5.

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R.M., J.C.-L. and J.M.B. were funded by grants CGL2014-56567-R, CGL2017-83855-R and PCIN-2014-053 (Ministerio de Economia y Competitividad, MINECO, Spain), and Eco-serve project (Biodiversa–FACCE, Horizon 2020, European Union). The study has been supported by the TRY initiative on plant traits (http://www.try-db.org). The TRY initiative and database is hosted, developed and maintained by J. Kattge and G. Bönisch (Max Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry, Jena, Germany). TRY is currently supported by DIVERSITAS/Future Earth and the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv) Halle-Jena -Leipzig. R.M. thanks C. F. Ingala from Universidad Rey Juan Carlos. E.E.S. thanks the FAPESP/BIOTA programme for financial support. J.K. thanks BACI (EU grant ID 640176). T.H. thanks the support of Australian Research Council (DP130013029). V.D.P. was supported by CNPq, Brazil, grant no. 307689/2014-0, K.K. was funded by the project Resilient Forests (KB-29-009-003).

Author information

Author notes

    • Julia Chacón-Labella

    Present address: Department of Environmental System Science, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, ETH Zurich, Zurich, Switzerland

  1. Deceased: Bernard Amiaud.


  1. Departamento de Biologia, Geología, Física y Química Inorgánica, Universidad Rey Juan Carlos, Móstoles, Spain

    • Rubén Milla
    • , Jesús M. Bastida
    •  & Julia Chacón-Labella
  2. Department of Biological Sciences, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA, USA

    • Martin M. Turcotte
  3. Department of Archaeology, University of Sheffield, Sheffield, UK

    • Glynis Jones
  4. CEFE UMR 5175, CNRS – Université de Montpellier – Université Paul-Valéry Montpellier – EPHE, Montpellier, France

    • Cyrille Violle
  5. Department of Animal and Plant Sciences, University of Sheffield, Sheffield, UK

    • Colin P. Osborne
  6. Embrapa Clima Temperado, Pelotas, Brazil

    • Ênio E. Sosinski Jr
  7. Max Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry, Jena, Germany

    • Jens Kattge
    •  & Gerhard Boenisch
  8. German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv) Halle-Jena-Leipzig, Leipzig, Germany

    • Jens Kattge
  9. Department of Botany, University of Wyoming, Laramie, WY, USA

    • Daniel C. Laughlin
  10. Laboratoire Ecodiv URA/EA 1293, IRSTEA, FR CNRS 3730 SCALE, UFR Sciences et Techniques, Normandie Université, Université de Rouen, Mont Saint Aignan, France

    • Estelle Forey
  11. Department of Biology, Ecology and Biodiversity, Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Brussels, Belgium

    • Vanessa Minden
  12. Landscape Ecology Group, Institute of Biology and Environmental Sciences, Oldenburg, Germany

    • Vanessa Minden
  13. Systems Ecology, Department of Ecological Science, Faculty of Science, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, Amsterdam, The Netherlands

    • Johannes H. C. Cornelissen
  14. UMR Ecologie et Ecophysiologie Forestières, Faculté des Sciences et Technologies, Université de Lorraine, INRA, Vandoeuvre-lès-Nancy, France

    • Bernard Amiaud
  15. Wageningen Environmental Research, Wageningen University, Wageningen, The Netherlands

    • Koen Kramer
  16. School of Molecular and Life Sciences, Curtin University, Perth, Western Australia, Australia

    • Tianhua He
  17. Department of Ecology, Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul, Porto Alegre, Brazil

    • Valério D. Pillar
  18. School of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Yonsei University, Seoul, South Korea

    • Chaeho Byun


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R.M. and J.M.B. designed the study and compiled the data. R.M., J.M.B., J.C.-L. and M.M.T. performed statistical analyses. R.M. and J.M.B. wrote a first draft of the paper. M.M.T., G.J., C.P.O. and C.V. extensively revised drafts. All authors contributed to the writing of, and approved, the final version.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Rubén Milla.

Supplementary information

  1. Supplementary Information

    Supplementary Methods, Supplementary Figures, Supplementary Tables, Supplementary Note, and Supplementary References of the Article.

  2. Reporting Summary

  3. Supplementary Data 1

    List of 944 domesticated angiosperms included in this study, with information about family adscription and growth forms (herbaceous, graminoid and woody). Bold typing indicates the 181 species included in phenotypic space analyses.

  4. Supplementary Data 2

    Results of the analyses on Local Indicators of Phylogenetic Association analysis (LIPA). LIPA values for relative abundance of domesticates and domestication frequencies at family level are shown for mammals and angiosperms families.

  5. Supplementary Data 3

    Unpublished crop trait dataset of R.M. and J.M.B.

  6. Supplementary Data 4

    Phylogenetic trees used in this study.

  7. Supplementary Data 5

    Data, and sources for, wild progenitor assignment, and antiquity of domestication, for the domesticates included in phenotypic space analyses.

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