Organisms are adapted to their environment through a suite of anatomical, morphological, and physiological traits. These functional traits are commonly thought to determine an organism’s tolerance to environmental conditions. However, the differences in functional traits among co-occurring species, and whether trait differences mediate competition and coexistence is still poorly understood. Here we review studies comparing functional traits in two co-occurring tropical woody plant guilds, lianas and trees, to understand whether competing plant guilds differ in functional traits and how these differences may help to explain tropical woody plant coexistence. We examined 36 separate studies that compared a total of 140 different functional traits of co-occurring lianas and trees. We conducted a meta-analysis for ten of these functional traits, those that were present in at least five studies. We found that the mean trait value between lianas and trees differed significantly in four of the ten functional traits. Lianas differed from trees mainly in functional traits related to a faster resource acquisition life history strategy. However, the lack of difference in the remaining six functional traits indicates that lianas are not restricted to the fast end of the plant life–history continuum. Differences in functional traits between lianas and trees suggest these plant guilds may coexist in tropical forests by specializing in different life–history strategies, but there is still a significant overlap in the life–history strategies between these two competing guilds.
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