Effects of plant species traits on ecosystem processes: experiments in the Patagonian steppe
Several experiments have shown that aboveground net primary productivity increases with plant species richness. The main mechanism proposed to explain this relationship is niche complementarity, which is determined by differences in plant traits that affect resource use. We combined field and laboratory experiments using the most abundant species of the Patagonian steppe to identify which are the traits that determine niche complementarity in this ecosystem. We estimated traits that affect carbon, water, microclimate, and nitrogen dynamics. The most important traits distinguishing among species, from the standpoint of their effects on ecosystem functioning, were potential soil nitrification, rooting depth, and soil thermal amplitude. Additionally, we explored the relationship between trait diversity and aboveground net primary production (ANPP) using a manipulative field experiment. ANPP and the fraction of ANPP accounted for by trait diversity increased with number of traits. The effect of trait diversity decreased as the number of traits increased. Here, the use of traits gave us a mechanistic understanding of niche complementarity in the Patagonian steppe.