The third day of ESA talks saw an interesting session on functional ecology (Functional Traits in Ecological Research: What Have We Learned and Where Are We Going?), organized by Matt Aiello-Lammens and John Silander Jr.
As outlined by McGill and colleagues (2006), a functional trait-based approach can help us move past idiosyncrasies of species to understand more general patterns of species interactions and environmental tolerances. Despite our common conceptual framework that traits influence fitness in a given environment, many functional ecology studies have been challenged to explain much variation in measured functional traits using underlying environmental gradients. We might attribute this to a) measuring the ‘wrong’ traits or gradients, b) several trait values or syndromes being equally advantageous in a given environment, or c) limitations in our statistical approaches. Several talks in this organized session built up a nuanced story of functional trait diversity in the Cape Floristic Region (CFR) of South Africa. Communities are characterized by high species but low functional turnover (Matt Aiello-Lammens; Jasper Slingsby), and only in some genera do we see strong relationships between trait values and environments (Matt Aiello-Lammens; Nora Mitchell). Nora Mitchell presented a novel Bayesian approach combining trait and environmental information that allowed her to detect trait-environment relationships in about half of the lineages she investigated. These types of approaches that allow us to incorporate phylogenetic relationships and uncertainty may be a useful next step in our quest to understand how environmental conditions may drive trait patterns.
Another ongoing challenge in functional ecology is the mapping of function to traits. This is complicated by the fact that a trait may influence fitness in one environment but not others, and by our common use of ‘soft’ traits, which are more easily measurable correlates of the trait we really think is important. Focusing on a single important drought response trait axis in the same CFR system described above, Kerri Mocko demonstrated that clades of Pelargonium exhibited two contrasting stomatal behaviours under dry conditions: the tendency to favor water balance over carbon dioxide intake (isohydry) and the reverse (anisohydry). More to my point, she was able to link a more commonly measured functional trait (stomatal density) to this drought response behavior.
Turning from the macroevolutionary to the community scale, Ben Weinstein evaluated the classic assumption of trait-matching between consumer (hummingbird beak length) and resource (floral corolla length), exploring how resource availability might shape this relationship. Robert Muscarella then took a community approach to understanding species distributions, testing the idea that we are most likely to find species where their traits match the community average (community weighted mean). He used three traits of woody species to do so, and perhaps what I found most interesting about this approach was his comparison of these traits – if a species is unlike the community average along one trait dimension, are they also dissimilar along the other trait dimensions?
Thinking of trait dimensions, it was fascinating to see several researchers independently touch on this topic. For my talk, I subsampled different numbers and types of traits from a monkeyflower trait dataset to suggest that considering more traits may be our best sampling approach, if we want to understand community processes in complex, multi-faceted environments. Taking trait dimensionality to the extreme, perhaps gene expression patterns can be used to shed light on several important pathways, potentially helping us understand how plants interact with their environments across space and time (Andrew Latimer).
To me, this session highlighted several interesting advances in functional ecology research, and ended with an important ‘big picture’. In the face of another mass extinction, how is biodiversity loss impacting functional diversity (Matthew Davis)?
McGill, B. J., Enquist, B. J., Weiher, E., & Westoby, M. (2006). Rebuilding community ecology from functional traits. Trends in ecology & evolution, 21(4), 178-185.