Under-ground, over-ground – exploring trait diversity

The study and organisation of plants into groups based on their traits has arguably been a popular and important topic since Theophrastus attempted it in 300 BC. The continuing endeavours of plant trait ecologists, from the top of the canopy to the depths of the soil, were brought together at the 39th New Phytologist Symposium: Trait covariation – structural and functional relationships in plant ecology, held in Exeter, UK, in June 2017.

Untangling traits

Despite the apparently bewildering tangled knot of trait covariation, one of the main themes of the meeting was how covariance could be used to identify common axes, along which plant growth strategies are aligned. Several axes were discussed, including resource acquisition vs conservation, quality vs quantity of propagules, and hydraulic efficiency vs safety.

Image: A summary of common axes of plant strategy (rectangles) and their associated traits (circles and ellipses). Figure 1 from Walker et al. (2017).
A summary of common axes of plant strategy (rectangles) and their associated traits (circles and ellipses). Figure 1 from Walker et al. (2017).

Defining qualities

So what is a trait, actually? There was plenty of discussion around this topic at the meeting.

Delegates dug deeper into the definition of fine roots, the functions they performed, and whether they fitted into the trait tapestry in the same way as above-ground traits.

Enter the modellers

Speaker, and New Phytologist Editor, Belinda Medlyn began her talk by saying how unusual it was for an ecosystem modeller to be given a slot near the beginning of the programme, but the use of traits in ecosystem models was another key theme of the meeting. Fruitful discussions highlighted the multitude of ways in which traits could be used to drive ecosystem models and, while there are still many uncertainties on this topic, there are also sophisticated new tools available to incorporate traits into models and quantify the uncertainty associated with them.

Posters and ponies

Aside from the talks, many posters were presented at the symposium and prompted much discussion, which continued onto Dartmoor.

Teresa Rosas won the symposium poster prize, and has been featured in a Profile in New Phytologist 216:4. You can see her poster here.

Re-live the symposium

We recorded a large number of talks from the symposium, and you can watch them on our YouTube playlist. Our Storify is the perfect accompaniment. As the festive season begins to loom on the horizon, treat yourself to some traits.

Read the Meeting Report: Walker, A. P., McCormack, M. L., Messier, J., Myers-Smith, I. H. and Wullschleger, S. D. (2017) Trait covariance: the functional warp of plant diversity? New Phytologist, 216: 976–980. doi: 10.1111/nph.14853

Mike Whitfield (@mgwhitfield)
Development Coordinator
New Phytologist

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