By integrating a wide range of experimental, comparative, and theoretical approaches, ecologists are starting to gain a detailed understanding of the long-term dynamics of vegetation. We explore how patterns of variation in demographic traits among species have provided insight into the processes that structure plant communities. We find a common set of mechanisms, derived from ecological and evolutionary principles, that underlie the main forces shaping systems as diverse as annual plant communities and tropical forests. Trait variation between species maintains diversity and has important implications for ecosystem processes. Hence, greater understanding of how Earth's vegetation functions will likely require integration of ecosystem science with ideas from plant evolutionary, population, and community ecology.
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