Predicting habitat affinities of plant species using commonly measured functional traits

Bill Shipley, Michael Belluau, Ingolf Kühn, Nadejda A. Soudzilovskaia, Michael Bahn, Josep Penuelas, Jens Kattge, Lawren Sack, Jeannine Cavender-Bares, Wim A. Ozinga, Benjamin Blonder, Peter M. van Bodegom, Peter Manning, Thomas Hickler, Enio Sosinski, Valério De Patta Pillar, Vladimir Onipchenko

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

25 Scopus citations


Questions: Heinz Ellenberg classically defined “indicator” scores for species representing their typical positions along gradients of key environmental variables, and these have proven very useful for designating ecological distributions. We tested a key tenent of trait-based ecology, i.e. the ability to predict ecological preferences from species’ traits. More specifically, can we predict Ellenberg indicator scores for soil nutrients, soil moisture and irradiance from four well-studied traits: leaf area, leaf dry matter content, specific leaf area (SLA) and seed mass? Can we use such relationships to estimate Ellenberg scores for species never classified by Ellenberg?. Location: Global. Methods: Cumulative link models were developed to predict Ellenberg nutrients, irradiance and moisture values from Ln-transformed trait values using 922, 981 and 988 species, respectively. We then independently tested these prediction equations using the trait values of 423 and 421 new species that occurred elsewere in Europe, North America and Morocco, and whose habitat affinities we could classify from independent sources as three-level ordinal ranks related to soil moisture and irradiance. The traits were SLA, leaf dry matter content, leaf area and seed mass. Results: The four functional traits predicted the Ellenberg indicator scores of site fertility, light and moisture with average error rates of <2 Ellenberg ranks out of nine. We then used the trait values of 423 and 421 species, respectively, that occurred (mostly) outside of Germany but whose habitat affinities we could classify as three-level ordinal ranks related to soil moisture and irradiance. The predicted positions of the new species, given the equations derived from the Ellenberg indices, agreed well with their independent habitat classifications, although our equation for Ellenberg irrandiance levels performed poorly on the lower ranks. Conclusions: These prediction equations, and their eventual extensions, could be used to provide approximate descriptions of habitat affinities of large numbers of species worldwide.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1082-1095
Number of pages14
JournalJournal of Vegetation Science
Issue number5
StatePublished - Sep 2017

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This research was partially funded by a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Grant to BS. VO was supported by the Russian Science Foundation (# 14-50-00029). The study has been supported by the TRY initiative on plant traits ( The TRY initiative and database is hosted at the Max Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry, Jena, Germany. TRY is currently supported by DIVERSITAS/Future Earth and the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv) Halle-Jena-Leipzig.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2017 International Association for Vegetation Science


  • Environmental gradients
  • Habitat affinities
  • Habitat fertility
  • Leaf dry matter content
  • Leaf size
  • Seed size
  • Shade
  • Soil moisture
  • Soil nutrients
  • Specific leaf area
  • Understorey plants
  • Wetlands

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