The Tundra Trait Team

In ecology, it is not only relevant where a plant is growing (as is the usual topic of our research here), but also how it looks like when it grows there. The latter is reflected in the concept of traits: characteristics of a species’ ecological strategies and life histories, underlying differences in the way species acquire and use resources. For plants, these traits could reflect values related to their size, nutrient acquisition or seed production.

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Measuring the height of an individual of Matricaria discoidea in a roadside

Such traits reflect the direct interaction between a species and its habitat, even more than their presence or absence at a certain location does. Variation in traits is thus often closely linked to environmental variation, like changes in climate.

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In the high tundra (like here in the northern Swedish mountains), plants usually stay close to the ground, as illustrated by this Salix herbacea in a soft moss bed.

In order to analyze large-scale effects of the environment on plant performance, however, a lot of trait data is needed. But here is the great news: countless scientists are collecting such data all over the world. The trick is just to bring all this data together. The TRY-database does a great job in that regard, yet that database had a big and important limitation: the Arctic was highly underrepresented. A new effort (led by Anne Bjorkman and the Tundra Trait Team) has now filled that void, by collating a database of over 90.000 (!) data points about plant traits from tundra vegetation.

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Measuring the Specific Leaf Area of the Arctic birch (Betula pubescens czerepanovii)

That is a lot of trait data, and the possibilities with such a database are virtually endless. We can use it to see how species react to climate across the whole tundra biome, for example, which can shed important light on how the tundra vegetation will be (and is) reacting to the changing climate. The latter is illustrated in another recent paper from the same team in Nature, in which Bjorkman et al. explore the relationships between temperature, moisture and plant traits across the whole tundra. Their conclusions? Plant height is rapidly increasing with the warming climate in recent decades, yet most other traits are lagging behind.

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Thalictrum alpinum, a small alpine version of a genus with usually tall-growing species

Another example of how scientists are teaming up everywhere to tackle issues that are to big to handle alone. And that’s exactly how I love it.

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Tall, woody species (like this pine, Pinus sylvestris) only occur up till a certain elevation and latitude

Reference:

Bjorkman et al. (2018) Tundra Trait Team: A database of plant traits spanning the
tundra biome, Global Ecology and Biogeography.

Bjorkman AD, IH Myers-Smith, SC Elmendorf, S Normand, N Rüger, et al. Changes in plant functional traits across a warming tundra biomeNature. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/s41586-018-0563-7

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Astragalus alpinus

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