Using functional diversity patterns to explore metacommunity dynamics: a framework for understanding local and regional influences on community structure.

4 March 2014

Spasojevic, Marko; Copeland, Stella; Suding, Katharine

The metacommunity concept, describing how local and regional scale processes interact to structure communities, has been successfully applied to patterns of taxonomic diversity. Functional diversity has proved useful for understanding local scale processes, but has less often been applied to understanding regional scale processes. Here, we explore functional diversity patterns within a metacommunity context to help elucidate how local and regional scale processes influence community assembly. We detail how each of the four metacommunity perspectives (species sorting, mass effects, patch dynamics, neutral) predict different patterns of functional beta- and alpha-diversity and spatial structure along two key gradients: dispersal limitation and environmental conditions. We then apply this conceptual model to a case study from alpine tundra plant communities. We sampled species composition in 17 ‘sky islands’ of alpine tundra in the Colorado Rocky Mountains, USA that differed in geographic isolation and area (key factors related to dispersal limitation) and temperature and elevation (key environmental factors). We quantified functional diversity in each site based on specific leaf area, leaf area, stomatal conductance, plant height and chlorophyll content. We found that colder high elevation sites were functionally more similar to each other (decreased functional beta-diversity) and had lower functional alpha-diversity. Geographic isolation and area did not influence functional beta- or alpha-diversity. These results suggest a strong role for environmental conditions structuring alpine plant communities, patterns consistent with the species sorting metacommunity perspective. Incorporating functional diversity into metacommunity theory can help elucidate how local and regional factors structure communities and provide a framework for observationally examining the role of metacommunity dynamics in systems where experimental approaches are less tractable.