Vernal pool ecosystems emerge from winter and spring rains that fill shallow depressions in the earth, resulting in small patches of wetlands spread throughout the Central Valley of California, USA. These pools act as a crucial habitat for a diverse community of annual plants, many of which are endemic to the region. Many of these species complete the majority of their entire lifecycle within the short duration that the pool exists. As the standing water evaporates, a stunning array of wildflowers is produced from the plant species that co-occur in these temporary ecosystems. The endemic diversity of these pools, coupled with the short lifespan and small size of the species, makes them an ideal model system for testing questions of community assembly. In the study “Functional trait differences and the outcome of community assembly: an experimental test with vernal pool annual plants” in Oikos, Nathan Kraft, Greg Crutsinger, Elisabeth Forrestel and Nancy Emery measured functional trait differences between species in the pools and tested whether these characteristics could be used to predict the outcome of interactions among plant species and, ultimately, the processes structuring the vernal pool communities.
Kraft and colleagues used a greenhouse experiment with eight different annual vernal plant species and grew them together in all pairwise combinations, so that every species had a chance to interact with every other species. They also submerged these combinations in tubs of water for different amounts of time to mimic growing at different depths in a vernal pool. Prior work in this system has found that the recession of water in the spring generates a gradient of species composition along the sides of vernal pools. The authors observed that plant species tended to do better when they had larger leave size, lower specific leaf area (fresh leaf area divided by dry leaf mass), and greater investment in lateral canopy spread than their neighbors. It also turns out that not all individuals within species are equal in these interactions. The authors took an additional step relative to many trait-based studies and measured functional traits for all individuals in the experiment. Models that incorporated individual trait differences did a better job of predicting the outcome of the interactions than models using only species average trait values.
The results of this study suggest that plant traits can be used to help understand the outcome of interspecific interactions in vernal plant communities. It’s also clear that individual trait differences matter. If resources allow, researchers can boost their predictive power by considering trait differences among individuals, instead of focusing on the average traits for different species, which has been the standard practice. There is still more work to be done to understand how vernal pool communities are assembled, as the patterns Kraft and colleagues observed in greenhouse did not strongly match patterns seen in natural pools, suggesting other undiscovered factors are also contributing to species distributions. Ongoing work from Nancy Emery and others will continue to shed light on the processes structuring these fantastic communities in the near future!