Plant functional type classifications in tropical dry forests in Costa Rica: Leaf habit versus taxonomic approaches

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1. One way to simplify the high taxonomic diversity of plant species in vegetation models is to place species into groups based on shared, dominant traits. Many studies have suggested that morphological and physiological traits of tropical dry forest tree species vary with leaf habit (i.e. leaves from evergreen, deciduous or semi-deciduous species) and thus this characteristic may serve as a useful way to distinguish ecologically meaningful functional types. 2. In this study we examine whether 10 plant traits vary with leaf habit in replicated leaves and individual trees of 87 species from a tropical dry forest in Costa Rica. We also looked for evidence of phylogenetic conservatism, i.e. closely related species sharing similar trait values compared to more distantly related taxa. 3. While some of the traits varied within and among individual trees of the same species, interspecific variation accounted for 57-83% of the variance among samples. Four traits in addition to leaf habit showed evidence of phylogenetic conservatism, but these results were strongly dependent on the inclusion of the 18 species of legumes (Fabaceae) in our dataset. Contrary to our predictions, none of the traits we measured differed among leaf habits. However, five traits (wood density, leaf C, leaf N, N/P and C/N) varied significantly between legumes and other functional types. Furthermore, when all high-nitrogen non-legume taxa were compared to the high-nitrogen legumes, six traits excluding leaf N differed significantly, indicating that legumes are functionally different from other tree species beyond high N concentrations. Similarly, the 18 legume taxa (which all have compound leaves) also differed from other compound-leaved species for six traits, thus leaf type does not explain these patterns. 4. Our main conclusions are that (i) a plant functional type classification based on leaf habit alone has little utility in the tropical dry forest we studied, and (ii) legumes have a different suite of traits including high leaf carbon and wood density in addition to high leaf nitrogen. Whether this result generalizes to other tropical forests is unknown, but merits future research due to the consequences of these traits for carbon storage and ecosystem processes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)927-936
Number of pages10
JournalFunctional Ecology
Issue number4
StatePublished - Aug 2010


  • Fabaceae
  • Nitrogen
  • Phosphorus
  • Phylogeny
  • Plant functional type
  • Stable isotopes
  • Stoichiometry


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