Plant functional characteristics may drive plant species richness effects on ecosystem processes. Consequently, the focus of biodiversity–ecosystem functioning (BEF) experiments has expanded from the manipulation of plant species richness to manipulating functional trait composition. Involving ecophysiological plant traits in the experimental design might allow for a better understanding of how species loss alters ecosystem processes. Here we provide the theoretical background, design and first results of the ‘Trait-Based Biodiversity Experiment’ (TBE), established in 2010 that directly manipulates the trait composition of experimental plant communities.
Analysis of six plant traits related to resource acquisition and use were analyzed using principal component analysis of 60 grassland species. The resulting two main axes describe gradients in functional similarity, and were used as the basis for designing plant communities with different functional and species diversity levels. Using such an approach allowed us to manipulate different levels of complementarity in spatial and temporal plant resource acquisition. In contrast to previous biodiversity experiments, the TBE is designed according to more realistic scenarios of non-random species loss along orthogonal axes of species trait dissimilarities. This allows us to tease apart the relative importance of selection and complementarity effects on multiple ecosystem processes, and to mechanistically study the consequences of plant community simplification.