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The leaf economics spectrum (LES) has revolutionized the way many ecologists think about quantifying plant ecological trade-offs. In particular, the LES has connected a clear functional trade-off (long-lived leaves with slow carbon capture vs. short-lived leaves with fast carbon capture) to a handful of easily measured leaf traits. Building on this work, community ecologists are now able to quickly assess species carbon-capture strategies, which may have implications for community-level patterns such as competition or succession. However, there are a number of steps in this logic that require careful examination, and a potential danger arises when interpreting leaf-trait variation among species within communities where trait relationships are weak. Using data from 22 diverse communities, we show that relationships among three common functional traits (photosynthetic rate, leaf nitrogen concentration per mass, leaf mass per area) are weak in communities with low variation in leaf life span (LLS), especially communities dominated by herbaceous or deciduous woody species. However, globally there are few LLS data sets for communities dominated by herbaceous or deciduous species, and more data are needed to confirm this pattern. The context-dependent nature of trait relationships at the community level suggests that leaf-trait variation within communities, especially those dominated by herbaceous and deciduous woody species, should be interpreted with caution.


This article was originally published in Ecology, volume 94, issue 9, in 2013. DOI: 10.1890/12-1602.1


Ecological Society of America



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