Messier, J.,McGill, B. J.,Enquist, B. J.,Lechowicz, M. J.
Trait-based approaches have taken an increasingly dominant role in community ecology. Although trait-based strategy dimensions such as the leaf economic spectrum (LES) have been identified primarily at global-scales, trait variation at the community scale is often interpreted in this context. Here we argue from several lines of evidence that a research priority should be to determine whether global-scale trait relationships hold at more local scales. We review recent literature assessing trait variation at smaller scales, and then present a case study exploring the relationship between the correlation strength of leaf traits and their similarity in variation structure across ecological scales. We find that the correlation strength between pairs of leaf traits does not predict whether the traits respond similarly to different drivers of variation. Instead, correlation strength only sets an upper bound to the dissimilarity in trait variation structure. With moderate correlation strengths, LES traits largely retain the ability to respond independently to different drivers of phenotypic variation at different scales. Recent literature and our results suggest that LES relationships may not hold at local scales. Clarifying under what conditions and at which scales the LES is consistently expressed is necessary for us to make the most of the emerging trait toolbox.