Climate- and successional-related changes in functional composition of European forests are strongly driven by tree mortality

Paloma Ruiz-Benito, Sophia Ratcliffe, Miguel A. Zavala, Jordi Martínez-Vilalta, Albert Vilà-Cabrera, Francisco Lloret, Jaime Madrigal-González, Christian Wirth, Sarah Greenwood, Gerald Kändler, Aleksi Lehtonen, Jens Kattge, Jonas Dahlgren, Alistair S. Jump

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46 Citations (Scopus)


© 2017 John Wiley & Sons Ltd Intense droughts combined with increased temperatures are one of the major threats to forest persistence in the 21st century. Despite the direct impact of climate change on forest growth and shifts in species abundance, the effect of altered demography on changes in the composition of functional traits is not well known. We sought to (1) quantify the recent changes in functional composition of European forests; (2) identify the relative importance of climate change, mean climate and forest development for changes in functional composition; and (3) analyse the roles of tree mortality and growth underlying any functional changes in different forest types. We quantified changes in functional composition from the 1980s to the 2000s across Europe by two dimensions of functional trait variation: the first dimension was mainly related to changes in leaf mass per area and wood density (partially related to the trait differences between angiosperms and gymnosperms), and the second dimension was related to changes in maximum tree height. Our results indicate that climate change and mean climatic effects strongly interacted with forest development and it was not possible to completely disentangle their effects. Where recent climate change was not too extreme, the patterns of functional change generally followed the expected patterns under secondary succession (e.g. towards late-successional short-statured hardwoods in Mediterranean forests and taller gymnosperms in boreal forests) and latitudinal gradients (e.g. larger proportion of gymnosperm-like strategies at low water availability in forests formerly dominated by broad-leaved deciduous species). Recent climate change generally favoured the dominance of angiosperm-like related traits under increased temperature and intense droughts. Our results show functional composition changes over relatively short time scales in European forests. These changes are largely determined by tree mortality, which should be further investigated and modelled to adequately predict the impacts of climate change on forest function.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)4162-4176
JournalGlobal Change Biology
Issue number10
Publication statusPublished - 1 Oct 2017


  • FunDivEUROPE
  • National Forest Inventory
  • climate change
  • demographic rates
  • drought
  • functional traits
  • mixed modelling
  • piecewise structural equation modelling
  • temperature anomaly
  • tree growth


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