Long-term studies have revealed that forest species composition was shifting under environment change and disturbance induced by loss of large trees. Yet, few studies explicitly analyzed their impacts on composition concurrently. To learn more about impacts of environment change and disturbance on driving forest community, we investigated shifts in functional composition over past 24 years in an old-growth subtropical forest in southern China. We analyzed nine traits that are mainly related to leaf nutrients, photosynthetic capacity, hydraulic conductivity, and drought tolerance of plants and examined hypotheses: (1) The functional composition change over time was directional instead of random fluctuation, (2) drought-tolerant species increased their abundance under soil dryness, (3) both environmental change and disturbance related to changes of functional composition significantly, and (4) initial trait values of quadrats strongly influenced their subsequent change rates in quadrat level (10 × 10 m). We found that species composition had shifted to favor species with high leaf nutrient content, high photosynthesis rate, high hydraulic conductivity, low water-use efficiency, and high drought tolerance traits, which was due to soil dryness and disturbance. These two factors explained 47–58% of quadrats’ trait value changes together. Considering rapidly increasing stem density, this pattern may indicate ecological processes of which disturbance provided numerous recruits of resource-acquisition strategy species and soil dryness conducted a selecting effect on shaping composition in the forest. Additionally, quadrats with initial trait values at the far end of change direction shifted faster in three traits, which also indicated that functional composition changes in quadrats were directional and homogenized. Our results implied that environment change and accompanied disturbance events possibly drove species composition change along a different trajectory in the subtropical forest that experienced high climatic variability.
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