Functional trait niches of North American lotic insects: Traits-based ecological applications in light of phylogenetic relationships


The use of species traits to characterize the functional composition of benthic invertebrate communities has become well established in the ecological literature. This approach holds much potential for predicting changes of both species and species assemblages along environmental gradients in terms of traits that are sensitive to local environmental conditions. Further, in the burgeoning field of biomonitoring, a functional approach provides a predictive basis for understanding community-level responses along gradients of environmental alteration caused by humans. Despite much progress in recent years, the full potential of the functional traits-based approach is currently limited by several factors, both conceptual and methodological. Most notably, we lack adequate understanding of how individual traits are intercorrelated and how this lack of independence among traits reflects phylogenetic (evolutionary) constraint. A better understanding is needed if we are to make the transition from a largely univariate approach that considers single-trait responses along single environmental gradients to a multivariate one that more realistically accounts for the responses of many traits across multiple environmental gradients characteristic of most human-dominated landscapes. Our primary objective in this paper is to explore the issue of inter-trait correlations for lotic insects and to identify opportunities and challenges for advancing the theory and application of traits-based approaches in stream community ecology. We created a new database on species-trait composition of North American lotic insects. Using published accounts and expert opinion, we collected information on 20 species traits (in 59 trait states) that fell into 4 broad categories: life-history, morphological, mobility, and ecological. First, we demonstrate the importance of considering how the linkage of specific trait states within a taxon is critical to developing a more-robust traits-based community ecology. Second, we examine the statistical correlations among traits and trait states for the 311 taxa to identify trait syndromes and specify which traits provide unique (uncorrelated) information that can be used to guide trait selection in ecological studies. Third, we examine the evolutionary associations among traits by mapping trait states onto a phylogentic tree derived from morphological and molecular analyses and classifications from the literature. We examine the evolutionary lability of individual traits by assessing the extent to which they are unconstrained by phylogenic relationships across the taxa. By focusing on the lability of traits within lotiv genera of Ephemeroptera, Plecoptera, and Trichoptera, taxa often used as water-quality indicators, we show how a traits-based approach can allow a priori expectations of the differential response of these taxa to specific environmental gradients. We conclude with some ideas about how specific trait linkages, statistical correlations among traits, and evolutionary lability of traits can be used in combination with a mechanistic understanding of trait response along environmental gradients to select robust traits useful for a more predictive community ecology. We indicate how these new insights can direct the research in statistical modeling that is necessary to achieve the full potential of models that can predict how multiple traits will respond along multiple environmental gradients.

Document Type





Biomonitoring, Environmental filters, Environmental gradients, Functional diversity, Functional trait niche, Phylogenetic analysis, Predictive community ecology, Species traits, Trait correlations

Publication Date


Journal Title

Journal of the North American Benthological Society