Instead of blood pressure, temperature, and heart rate, the vital signs for a forest are captured in key traits such as the amount of nitrogen in a tree’s leaves, the leaf area, or the density of the wood. These “functional traits” can impact how trees grow — and therefore how forests respond to climate change. While researchers have begun trying to tease out these patterns in recent decades, incomplete data has made it difficult to understand what’s happening to particular traits in any meaningful way — especially when you get down to the level of individual trees in a forest.
To help fill this important knowledge gap, Daniel J. Wieczynski and Santa Fe Institute external professor Van M. Savage, both ecologists at the University of California-Los Angeles, and their collaborators decided to analyze existing data from trait studies on forest communities to see what could be revealed about these shifts on a global scale.
“One of the challenges is that you need a lot of data to accurately measure functional diversity,” says Wieczynski. “So our idea was to take what functional data we have available from databases and pair this with locally collected field data, as well as data about species abundance, to say something about climate-biodiversity relationships that we couldn’t say before.”