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Global trait–environment relationships of plant communities


Plant functional traits directly affect ecosystem functions. At the species level, trait combinations depend on trade-offs representing different ecological strategies, but at the community level trait combinations are expected to be decoupled from these trade-offs because different strategies can facilitate co-existence within communities. A key question is to what extent community-level trait composition is globally filtered and how well it is related to global versus local environmental drivers. Here, we perform a global, plot-level analysis of trait–environment relationships, using a database with more than 1.1 million vegetation plots and 26,632 plant species with trait information. Although we found a strong filtering of 17 functional traits, similar climate and soil conditions support communities differing greatly in mean trait values. The two main community trait axes that capture half of the global trait variation (plant stature and resource acquisitiveness) reflect the trade-offs at the species level but are weakly associated with climate and soil conditions at the global scale. Similarly, within-plot trait variation does not vary systematically with macro-environment. Our results indicate that, at fine spatial grain, macro-environmental drivers are much less important for functional trait composition than has been assumed from floristic analyses restricted to co-occurrence in large grid cells. Instead, trait combinations seem to be predominantly filtered by local-scale factors such as disturbance, fine-scale soil conditions, niche partitioning and biotic interactions.

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Fig. 1: Conceptual figure to illustrate Hypothesis 1.
Fig. 2: Principal component analysis of global plot-level trait means (CWMs).
Fig. 3: Principal component analysis of global within-plot trait variances (CWVs).
Fig. 4: The two strongest relationships found for global plot-level trait means (CWMs) in the sPlot dataset.

Data availability

The data contained in sPlot (the vegetation-plot data complemented by trait and environmental information) are available on request, by contacting any of the sPlot consortium members, for submission of a paper proposal. The proposals should follow the Governance and Data Property Rules of the sPlot Working Group, which are available on the sPlot website (


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The sPlot was initiated by sDiv, the Synthesis Centre of the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv) Halle-Jena-Leipzig, funded by the German Research Foundation (FZT 118) and is now a platform of iDiv. H.B., J.De., O.Pu, U.J., B.J.-A., J.K., D.C., F.M.S., M.W. and C.W. appreciate the direct funding through iDiv. For all further acknowledgements see the Supplementary Information.

Author information




H.B. and U.J. wrote the first draft of the manuscript, with considerable input by B.J.-A. and R.F. Most of the statistical analyses and the production of the graphs were carried out by H.B.. H.B., O.Pu. and U.J. initiated sPlot as an sDiv working group and iDiv platform. J.De. compiled the plot databases globally. J.De., S.M.H., U.J., O.Pu. and F.J. harmonized vegetation databases. J.De. and B.J.-A. coordinated the sPlot consortium. J.K. provided the trait data from TRY. F.S. performed the trait data gap filling. O.Pu. produced the taxonomic backbone. B.J.-A., G.S. and E. Welk compiled environmental data and produced the global maps. S.M.H. wrote the Turboveg v3 software, which holds the sPlot database. J.L. and T.H. wrote the resampling algorithm. Many authors participated in one or more of the three sPlot workshops at iDiv where the sPlot initiative was conceived and planned, and evaluation of the data and first drafts were discussed. All other authors contributed data. All authors contributed to writing the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Helge Bruelheide.

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Supplementary Information

Supplementary Tables 1 and 2, Supplementary Figures 1–11, and Supplementary Acknowledgements

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Bruelheide, H., Dengler, J., Purschke, O. et al. Global trait–environment relationships of plant communities. Nat Ecol Evol 2, 1906–1917 (2018).

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