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When and how should intraspecific variability be considered in trait-based plant ecology?

Albert C.H., Grassein F., Schurr F.M., Vieilledent G., Violle C.. 2011. Perspectives in Plant Ecology, Evolution and Systematics, 13 (3) : p. 1-4.

DOI: 10.1016/j.ppees.2011.04.003

Trait-based studies have become extremely common in plant ecology. Trait-based approaches often rely on the tacit assumption that intraspecific trait variability (ITV) is negligible compared to interspecific variability, so that species can be characterized by mean trait values. Yet, numerous recent studies have challenged this assumption by showing that ITV significantly affects various ecological processes. Accounting for ITV may thus strengthen trait-based approaches, but measuring trait values on a large number of individuals per species and site is not feasible. Therefore, it is important and timely to synthesize existing knowledge on ITV in order to (1) decide critically when ITV should be considered, and (2) establish methods for incorporating this variability. Here we propose a practical set of rules to identify circumstances under which ITV should be accounted for. We formulate a spatial trait variance partitioning hypothesis to highlight the spatial scales at which ITV cannot be ignored in ecological studies. We then refine a set of four consecutive questions on the research question, the spatial scale, the sampling design, and the type of studied traits, to determine case-by-case if a given study should quantify ITV and test its effects. We review methods for quantifying ITV and develop a step-by-step guideline to design and interpret simulation studies that test for the importance of ITV. Even in the absence of quantitative knowledge on ITV, its effects can be assessed by varying trait values within species within realistic bounds around the known mean values. We finish with a discussion of future requirements to further incorporate ITV within trait-based approaches. This paper thus delineates a general framework to account for ITV and suggests a direction towards a more quantitative trait-based ecology. (Résumé d'auteur)

Mots-clés : plante; espèce; variation génétique; Écologie

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