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  1. Free, publicly-accessible full text available September 1, 2024
  2. Free, publicly-accessible full text available November 1, 2024
  3. Distribution of Earth’s biomes is structured by the match between climate and plant traits, which in turn shape associated communities and ecosystem processes and services. However, that climate–trait match can be disrupted by historical events, with lasting ecosystem impacts. As Earth’s environment changes faster than at any time in human history, critical questions are whether and how organismal traits and ecosystems can adjust to altered conditions. We quantified the relative importance of current environmental forcing versus evolutionary history in shaping the growth form (stature and biomass) and associated community of eelgrass ( Zostera marina ), a widespread foundation plant of marine ecosystems along Northern Hemisphere coastlines, which experienced major shifts in distribution and genetic composition during the Pleistocene. We found that eelgrass stature and biomass retain a legacy of the Pleistocene colonization of the Atlantic from the ancestral Pacific range and of more recent within-basin bottlenecks and genetic differentiation. This evolutionary legacy in turn influences the biomass of associated algae and invertebrates that fuel coastal food webs, with effects comparable to or stronger than effects of current environmental forcing. Such historical lags in phenotypic acclimatization may constrain ecosystem adjustments to rapid anthropogenic climate change, thus altering predictions about the future functioning of ecosystems. 
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  4. While considerable evidence exists of biogeographic patterns in the intensity of species interactions, the influence of these patterns on variation in community structure is less clear. Studying how the distributions of traits in communities vary along global gradients can inform how variation in interactions and other factors contribute to the process of community assembly. Using a model selection approach on measures of trait dispersion in crustaceans associated with eelgrass ( Zostera marina ) spanning 30° of latitude in two oceans, we found that dispersion strongly increased with increasing predation and decreasing latitude. Ocean and epiphyte load appeared as secondary predictors; Pacific communities were more overdispersed while Atlantic communities were more clustered, and increasing epiphytes were associated with increased clustering. By examining how species interactions and environmental filters influence community structure across biogeographic regions, we demonstrate how both latitudinal variation in species interactions and historical contingency shape these responses. Community trait distributions have implications for ecosystem stability and functioning, and integrating large-scale observations of environmental filters, species interactions and traits can help us predict how communities may respond to environmental change. 
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