Understanding the processes shaping biological communities under multiple disturbances is a core challenge in ecology and conservation science. Traditionally, ecologists have explored linkages between the severity and type of disturbance and the taxonomic structure of communities. Recent advances in the application of species traits, to assess the functional structure of communities, have provided an alternative approach that responds rapidly and consistently across taxa and ecosystems to multiple disturbances. Importantly, trait-based metrics may provide advanced warning of disturbance to ecosystems because they do not need species loss to be reactive. Here, we synthesize empirical evidence and present a theoretical framework, based on species positions in a functional space, as a tool to reveal the complex nature of change in disturbed ecosystems. Copyright © 2012 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.