Monday, June 22, 2009

A point on the horizon

There have been a few interesting papers that have recently been published that I'll mention soon.

In the meantime, I sometimes wonder about the future of the plant trait discipline--that mix of evolution and ecology. It seems pretty fractious at times. Evolutionary biologists often take umbrage at the lack of sophistication at which ecologists attempt to describe evolutionary patterns of functional traits. Ecologists just can't contextualize the traits that evolutionary biologists examine and/or the species that they use. How easy is it to see the significance of variation in the lac10 gene? [I just made that name up, but it turns out it exists.] Among those researchers that straddle the middle ground, different research groups seemed locked into a single framework of explaining how the world works. A lot of these divisions fall (implicitly) along some basic assumptions of how the world is structured (competition vs. facilitation, pulsed vs evenly-supplied resources), while others fall along sets of traits. Mycorrhizal ecologists can feel disrespect when the traits stop at the root tip. Microbial ecologists want to know more about organic N uptake. Some ecologists measure SLA, others tissue density, others fresh weight to dry weight ratios. 

All the division can be healthy--the world is a complex place. But, it can also be miring. They'll never be settled any time soon--or at least haven't in the past 30 years.

Sometimes I think that we need a goal on the horizon that is magnificent enough to grow the field so everyone can be funded to work without feeling that another person's success might be their failure. And, that it would be interesting enough for people to not focus too tight on the details.

I wrote about this a bit in RSWP, but one of these goal has to be to be able to compare the functional trait distributions of entire florae. Think about comparing the drought resistance of grasslands from Alberta to those of Hungary. Or the shade tolerance of a northern Australia eucalyptus rainforest to those of the broad-leaved forests of northeast North America. 

As ecologists (or biogeographers) we often discuss the roles of radiation and sorting on the composition of flora. But, we've never really been able to show that at the massive scales these really play out. We need experiments that grow thousands of species side by side. We need to identify key functional traits that can be measured under standardized conditions. And we this should be done in a phylogenetic context. 

No comments:

Post a Comment