An ongoing research programme in ecology is to use species traits to model ecosystem dynamics and function. Most of the effort on traits has focussed on plants.
TRY is an exciting new global database of plant traits that has managed to combine many of these efforts – bring together 93 separate plant trait databases, and worked with 198 partners from 106 different scientific institutions, to produce a global database that contains 3 million trait records for about 69 000 plant species (of the world’s 3 00 000 plant species). The database covers about 1,500 different plant traits, including the morphological, anatomical, physiological, biochemical, and phenological – and ranging from leaf area, to fire tolerance, and nitrogen fixation capacity. The project’s objectives are:
(1) The construction of a global-scale database of vascular plant traits. This database should gather under a single, easily accessible format data available in different existing datasets that cover a variety of biomes, geographic areas, and traits. The database construction is under the technical responsibility of the Organismic Biogeochemistry Group at the Max-Planck-Institute for Biogeochemistry.
(2) Make the trait data available for the ecological community. The TRY database is not public, but data are shared among participants of the TRY initiative upon request, respecting the intellectual property rights of data contributors.
(3) Support the design of a new generation of dynamic global vegetation models (DGVMs) which take into account the greater biological complexity, necessary for a more robust representation of ecosystem response to global environmental change.
A new paper from the project in Global Change Biology (DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-2486.2011.02451.x) presents the TRY database and an initial analysis of traits that shows:
- most plant traits are approximately log-normally distributed, with widely differing ranges of variation across traits.
- most trait variation is between species (interspecific), but significant intraspecific variation is also documented, up to 40% of the overall variation.
- Plant functional types (PFTs), as commonly used in vegetation models, capture a substantial fraction of the observed variation – but for several traits most variation occurs within PFTs, up to 75% of the overall variation.
Hopefully we can expect much more progress in understanding ecological dynamics, as well as ecosystem function and services based on the further development and analysis of this database.