Revisiting the Holy Grail: Using plant functional traits to understand ecological processes

Funk, Jennifer L., Larson, Julie E., Ames, Gregory M., Butterfield, Bradley J., Cavender-Bares, Jeanine, Firn, Jennifer, Laughlin, Daniel C., Sutton-Grier, Ariana E., Williams, Laura, & Wright, Justin (2016) Revisiting the Holy Grail: Using plant functional traits to understand ecological processes. Biological Reviews. (In Press)

View at publisher


One of ecology's grand challenges is developing general rules to explain and predict highly complex systems. Understanding and predicting ecological processes from species' traits has been considered a ‘Holy Grail’ in ecology. Plant functional traits are increasingly being used to develop mechanistic models that can predict how ecological communities will respond to abiotic and biotic perturbations and how species will affect ecosystem function and services in a rapidly changing world; however, significant challenges remain. In this review, we highlight recent work and outstanding questions in three areas:

  • (i) selecting relevant traits;

  • (ii) describing intraspecific trait variation and incorporating this variation into models, and;

  • (iii) scaling trait data to community- and ecosystem-level processes.

Over the past decade, there have been significant advances in the characterization of plant strategies based on traits and trait relationships, and the integration of traits into multivariate indices and models of community and ecosystem function. However, the utility of trait-based approaches in ecology will benefit from efforts that demonstrate how these traits and indices influence organismal, community, and ecosystem processes across vegetation types, which may be achieved through meta-analysis and enhancement of trait databases. Additionally, intraspecific trait variation and species interactions need to be incorporated into predictive models using tools such as Bayesian hierarchical modelling. Finally, existing models linking traits to community and ecosystem processes need to be empirically tested for their applicability to be realized.

Impact and interest:

Citation counts are sourced monthly from Scopus and Web of Science® citation databases.

These databases contain citations from different subsets of available publications and different time periods and thus the citation count from each is usually different. Some works are not in either database and no count is displayed. Scopus includes citations from articles published in 1996 onwards, and Web of Science® generally from 1980 onwards.

Citations counts from the Google Scholar™ indexing service can be viewed at the linked Google Scholar™ search.

ID Code: 96505
Item Type: Journal Article
Refereed: Yes
Keywords: community assembly, ecological modelling, intraspecific variation, leaf economic spectrum, functional diversity, response traits, effect traits
DOI: 10.1111/brv.12275
ISSN: 1469-185X
Subjects: Australian and New Zealand Standard Research Classification > BIOLOGICAL SCIENCES (060000) > ECOLOGY (060200) > Community Ecology (060202)
Divisions: Current > Schools > School of Earth, Environmental & Biological Sciences
Current > QUT Faculties and Divisions > Science & Engineering Faculty
Copyright Owner: Copyright 2016 Cambridge Philosophical Society
Deposited On: 03 Jul 2016 23:50
Last Modified: 30 Sep 2016 03:00

Export: EndNote | Dublin Core | BibTeX

Repository Staff Only: item control page