Trait-based Reading Group

Trait-based approaches to ecology and conservation

I chose the paper for our recent lab Reading Group and we discussed McGill et al.’s (2006) paper on community ecology and functional traits.  General principals in community ecology are notoriously hard to find.  McGill et al. (2006) believe that a focus on functional traits and environmental gradients can lead to a more quantitative, general and predictive science.  The authors propose four broad research themes based on traits, environmental gradients, the ‘interaction milieu’ and performance currencies that are intended to move community ecology beyond simple pairwise species interactions and towards a research agenda focused on a physiological approach with well defined units of measurement.

Overall our group agreed that traits are a powerful way to make generalisations in ecology.  We thought the discussion of big questions and clear future research directions in the paper gave a nice introduction to the field of functional ecology and to future applications of this method.

SLA (Specific Leaf Area) is a commonly used plant functional trait

Our discussion of this general approach led to some questions around the definitions and consistency of use for terms such as ‘functional trait’, ‘life history trait’, ‘functional type’, ‘vital rates’ and ‘attributes’.  This subsequently led to the acknowledgment of different scales in trait based research and questions surrounding levels of variation within traits, between traits, across species as well as between sites, regions and biomes.

We were not entirely clear on the detailed approaches being used to ‘rebuild’ community ecology based on traits, particularly in the face of multiple interactions between large numbers of species, but our attention was drawn to literature (not cited within this paper) that focuses on mechanistic and physiological trait based modelling (reviewed in Kearney and Porter 2006).  We thought that better theory about which traits are important, why, and under which circumstances will make trait-based approaches more applicable to conservation science.  In particular, we concluded that it would be nice to see more quantitative tests of the predictive ability of trait-based research, along the lines of Keith et al. (2007).

Hakea sp. with a different SLA

Within QAECO there are a few Qaecologists who work with functional traits of both plants and animals, with a general focus on applications of trait-based ecology to conservation problems.  See our QAECO blog here for more details.

Keep checking our main lab blog for more of our Reading Group papers (for our discussion on Restoration Ecology, see here).


McGill, B.J., Enquist, B.J., Weiher, E., & Westoby, M (2006) Rebuilding community ecology from functional traits. TRENDS in Ecology and Evolution.

Kearney, M., & Porter, W.P (2006) Ecologists have already started rebuilding community ecology from functional traits.  TRENDS in Ecology and Evolution.

Keith, D.A., Holman, L., Rodoreda, S., Lemmon, J., & Bedward, M (2007) Plant functional types can predict decade scale changes in fire prone vegetation.  Journal of Ecology.

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