Species with moderate intraspecific trait variability are locally abundant within an environmentally heterogeneous subtropical forest

Guochun Shen, En Rong Yan, Avi Bar-Massada, Jian Zhang, Heming Liu, Xihua Wang, Mingshan Xu

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Species with large intraspecific trait variability (ITV) have larger niche breadth than species with low ITV and thus are expected to be more abundant at the local scale. However, whether the positive ITV–abundance relationship holds in heterogeneous local environments remains uncertain. Using an individual-based trait dataset encompassing three leaf traits (leaf area, specific leaf area, and leaf dry mass content) of 20,248 individuals across 80 species in an environmentally heterogeneous subtropical forest in eastern China, ITV for each trait of each species was estimated by rarefaction. Resource-based niche breadth and marginality (the absolute distance between the mean resource states used by a species and the mean plot-wise resource states) were estimated simultaneously by the K–S method and the outlying mean index, respectively. Species with moderate ITV were often locally abundant, while species with large or small ITV were locally rare. This unimodal relationship between ITV and species abundance persisted when traits were analyzed separately and for all tree size classes. There was also a hump-backed relationship between niche breadth and marginality, and ITV was positively associated with niche breadth. The combined results suggest either a trade-off between the benefit from expanding niche breadth to adapt to multiple habitats and the disadvantage of reducing competitive ability, or a scarcity of favorable resources. Our results do not support the traditional thought that ITV positively correlates with species abundance in heterogeneous local environments. Instead, our study suggests that moderate—rather than large—intraspecific trait variability increases species abundance at local scales.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)629-637
Number of pages9
Issue number3
StatePublished - 1 Jul 2019

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2019, Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature.


  • Commonness and rarity
  • Niche breadth and marginality
  • Trait-based ecology
  • Unimodal relationship

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


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