Freshwater ecologists have shown increased interest in assessing biotic responses to environmental change using functional community characteristics. With this article, we investigate the potential of using functional traits of the aquatic plants to assess eutrophication in freshwater lakes. To this end we collected macrophyte and physicochemical data from thirteen lakes in Greece and we applied a trait-based analysis to first identify discrete groups of macrophytes that share common functional traits and then to assess preliminary responses of these groups to water quality gradients. We allocated 11 traits that cover mostly growth form and morphological characteristics to a total of 33 macrophyte species. RLQ and fourth corner analysis were employed to explore potential relationships between species, trait composition and environmental gradients. In addition, a hierarchical cluster analysis was conducted to discriminate groups of plants that share common trait characteristics and then the position of the groups along the environmental gradients was assessed. The results showed total phosphorus, chlorophyll-a, conductivity, pH and Secchi disk depth as main drivers of the environmental gradients. Hierarchical cluster analysis showed a clear separation of macrophyte assemblages with discrete functional characteristics that appeared to associate with different environmental drivers. Thus, rooted submerged plants were related with higher Secchi disk depth, conductivity and alkalinity whereas rooted floating-leaved plants showed a preference for enriched waters with phosphorus and nitrogen. In addition, free-floating plants were related positively with nitrogen and increased pH. Although we did not identify specific trait patterns with environmental drivers, our findings indicate a differentiation of macrophytes based on their functional characteristics along water quality gradients. Overall, the presented results are encouraging for conducting future monitoring studies in lakes focused on the functional plant trait composition, as expanding the current approach to additional lakes and using quantifiable functional characteristics will provide more insight about the potential of trait-based approaches as ecological assessment systems.
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