Functional diversity and identity are important drivers of tree growth across the European continent but their relative importance changes with climate

The relative contribution of community functional diversity and composition to ecosystem functioning is a critical question in ecology in order to enable better predictions of how ecosystems may respond to a changing climate. However there is little consensus of which modes of functional biodiversity are most important for tree growth at large spatial scales. We assessed the relative importance of climate, functional diversity and functional identity (i.e. the community mean values of five key functional traits) for tree growth across the European continent, spanning the northern boreal to the southern Mediterranean forests.

We used tree growth and community composition data from five European National Forest Inventories (Finland, Germany, Spain, Sweden and the Walloon region of Belgium) to estimate the sensitivity of tree growth to changes in climate, functional diversity and functional identity along a latitudinal gradient.

We found that community functional composition was a relevant driver of tree growth across the entire European continent. Functional diversity was more important in the Mediterranean region, providing evidence that niche complementarity may be more important for tree growth in water-limited forests. Functional identity effects were strongest at the latitudinal extremes of the continent indicating the importance of a particular trait composition for tree growth in harsh climates. We speculate that the functional identity signal may reflect a trait-based differentiation of successional stages rather than abiotic filtering due to water or energy limitation.

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