Plants vary widely in how common or rare they are, but whether commonness of species is associated with functional traits is still debated. This might partly be because commonness can be measured at different spatial scales, and because most studies focus solely on aboveground functional traits.
We measured five root traits and seed mass on 241 central European grassland species, and extracted their specific leaf area, height, mycorrhizal status and bud-bank size from databases. Then we tested if trait values are associated with commonness at seven spatial scales, ranging from abundance in 16-m(2) grassland plots, via regional and European-wide occurrence frequencies, to worldwide naturalization success.
At every spatial scale, commonness was associated with at least three traits. The traits explained the greatest proportions of variance for abundance in grassland plots (42%) and naturalization success (41%) and the least for occurrence frequencies in Europe and the Mediterranean (2%). Low root tissue density characterized common species at every scale, whereas other traits showed directional changes depending on the scale. We also found that many of the effects had significant non-linear effects, in most cases with the highest commonness-metric value at intermediate trait values. Across scales, belowground traits explained overall more variance in species commonness (19.4%) than aboveground traits (12.6%).
The changes we found in the relationships between traits and commonness, when going from one spatial scale to another, could at least partly explain the maintenance of trait variation in nature. Most importantly, our study shows that within grasslands, belowground traits are at least as important as aboveground traits for species commonness. Therefore, belowground traits should be more frequently considered in studies on plant functional ecology.