Plant functional diversity and carbon storage – an empirical test in semi-arid forest ecosystems
* Carbon storage in vegetation and soil underpins climate regulation through carbon sequestration. Because plant species differ in their ability to capture, store and release carbon, the collective functional characteristics of plant communities (functional diversity) should be a major driver of carbon accumulation in terrestrial ecosystems. * Three major components of plant functional diversity could be put forward as drivers of carbon storage in ecosystems: the most abundant functional trait values, the variety of functional trait values and the abundance of particular species that could have additional effects not incorporated in the first two components. * We tested for associations between these components and carbon storage across 16 sites in the Chaco forest of Argentina under the same climate and on highly similar parental material. The sites differed in their plant functional diversity caused by different long-term land-use regimes. * We measured six plant functional traits in 27 species and weighted them by the species abundance at each site to calculate the community-weighted mean (CWM) and the functional divergence (FDvar) of each single trait and of multiple traits (FDiv). We also measured plant and soil carbon storage. Using a stepwise multiple regression analysis, we assessed which of the functional diversity components best explained carbon storage. * Both CWM and FDvar of plant height and wood-specific gravity, but no leaf traits, were retained as predictors of carbon storage in multiple models. Relationships of FDvar of stem traits and FDiv with carbon storage were all negative. The abundance of five species improved the predictive power of some of the carbon storage models. * Synthesis. All three major components of plant functional diversity contributed to explain carbon storage. What matters the most to carbon storage in these ecosystems is the relative abundance of plants with tall, and to a lesser extent dense, stems with a narrow range of variation around these values. No consistent link was found between carbon storage and the leaf traits usually associated with plant resource use strategy. The negative association of trait divergence with carbon storage provided no evidence in support to niche complementarity promoting carbon storage in these forest ecosystems.