Our research focuses on the population dynamics of plants and how they are influenced by impacts of natural disturbances and global environmental change. We are particularly interested in the interactive effects of fire, grazing and drought in grasslands and woodlands in southern Australia, and how climate change, fragmentation and shrub encroachment affect ecosystems.

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Global plant trait data now more accessible

Theophrastus - one of the first botanists!

The use of plant functional traits to describe patterns in ecology has a long history. Indeed, it was Theophrastus who, in about 300 BC, first categorised plants by their growth form: tree, shrub, herb. Ian Wright's paper on the Worldwide Leaf Economics Spectrum remains a classic for me because it showed how using a large dataset (in his case, >2500 species) could search powerfully for patterns in leaf traits and how these were shaped by climate drivers. Such studies are well-beyond the scope of the average researcher, but by collating and sharing data, such insights become possible.

The PFT field is flourishing - so well that a new database has just been launced to act as a repository for trait data. The unimaginatively named TRY Database looks like a real winner for ecologists interested in examining large-scale patterns in nature using the traits of plants that underpin their response to environment and disturbance. It's not a publicly accessible database - you'll have to provide datasets to get access - but I think it could act as an important repository for trait data that remains buried in Honours and PhD theses, and the recesses of Excel files.

Location of sites across the globe for which plant
trait data has been submitted to TRY

This database aims to gather datasets that cover a variety of biomes, geographic areas, and traits. Already, the database comprises about 2,400,000 trait entries for more than 64,000 plant species and about 1000 different traits. My own research group is busy collating the data we have assembled over the years - an impressive dataset of >500 species from the temperate and alpine grassy ecosystems of southern Australia. In the spirit of co-operation, we hope to submit our data to TRY so that others can use our hard-won data.

For further information on TRY, a couple of recent papers have just been published:

Kattge et al. (2011) TRY - a global database of plant traits. Global Change Biology 17, 2905-2935

Kattge et al. (2011) A generic structure for plant trait databases. Methods in Ecology and Evolution 2, 202-213

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