Functional traits' annual variation exceeds nitrogen-driven variation in grassland plant species

George R. Wheeler*, Chad E. Brassil, Johannes M.H. Knops

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)


Effective application of functional trait approaches to ecological questions requires understanding the patterns of trait variation within species as well as between them. However, few studies address the potential for intraspecific variation to occur on a temporal basis and, thus, for trait-based findings to be contingent upon sampling year. To quantify annual variation in the functional traits of grassland plant species, we measured specific leaf area, leaf dry matter content, plant height, and chlorophyll content in 12 shortgrass prairie plant species. We repeated these measurements across 4 years, both in long-term nitrogen addition plots and in corresponding control plots. Three of the four traits showed significant year-to-year variation in a linear mixed model analysis, generally following a pattern of more acquisitive leaf economics spectrum traits in higher rainfall years. Furthermore, two of the measured traits responded interactively to nitrogen addition and sampling year, although only one, leaf dry matter content, showed the expected pattern of stronger nitrogen responses in high rainfall years. For leaf dry matter content and specific leaf area, trait responses to sampling year were larger than responses to the nitrogen addition treatment. These findings illustrate that species' functional traits can respond strongly to environmental changes across years, and thus that trait variation in a species or community is likely to extend beyond the values and patterns observed in any single year.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere3886
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2023


  • NutNet
  • annual variation
  • drought
  • functional trait
  • grassland
  • intraspecific trait variation
  • nutrients


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