Beyond trait distances: Functional distinctiveness captures the outcome of plant competition

Lucie Mahaut, Cyrille Violle, Ammar Shihan, Rémi Pélissier, Jean Benoit Morel, Félix de Tombeur, Koloina Rahajaharilaza, Denis Fabre, Delphine Luquet, Susan Hartley, Sarah J. Thorne, Elsa Ballini, Florian Fort

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)


Functional trait distances between coexisting organisms reflect not only complementarity in the way they use resources, but also differences in their competitive abilities. Accordingly, absolute and relative trait distances have been widely used to capture the effects of niche dissimilarity and competitive hierarchies, respectively, on the performance of plants in competition. However, multiple dimensions of the plant phenotype are involved in these plant–plant interactions (PPI), challenging the use of relative trait distances to predict their outcomes. Furthermore, estimating the effects of competitive hierarchy on the performance of a group of coexisting plants remains particularly difficult since relative trait distances relate to the effects of a focal plant on another. We argue that trait distinctiveness, an emerging facet of functional diversity that characterizes the eccentric position of a species (or genotype) in a phenotypic space, can reveal the unique role played by a given individual plant in a group of competing plants. We used the model crop species Oryza sativa spp. japonica to evaluate the ability of trait distances and trait distinctiveness to predict the outcome of intraspecific PPI on the performance of single genotype and genotype mixtures. We performed a screening experiment to characterize the phenotypic space of 49 rice genotypes based on 11 above-ground and root traits. We selected nine genotypes with contrasting positions in the phenotypic space and grew them in pots following a complete pairwise interaction design. Relative distances and distinctiveness based on traits associated with light competition were by far the best predictors of the performance of single genotypes—taller genotypes that acquired resource faster being the best competitors—while absolute trait distances had no effect. These results indicate that competitive hierarchy for light dominates PPI in this experiment. Consistently, trait distinctiveness in plant height and age at flowering had the strongest, positive effects on mixture performance, confirming that functional distinctiveness captures the effects of trait hierarchies and asymmetric PPI at this scale. Our findings shed new light on the role of trait diversity in regulating PPI and ecosystem processes and call for a greater consideration of functional distinctiveness in studies of coexistence mechanisms. Read the free Plain Language Summary for this article on the Journal blog.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2399-2412
Number of pages14
JournalFunctional Ecology
Issue number9
Publication statusPublished - Sept 2023


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