Thursday, December 1, 2011

The proximal should precede the distal

Relationship between water potential at which a species loses 90% of conductivity and dry season mortality. From Pratt 2008.  

When it comes to explaining patterns associated with the ecology of plants, a simple dictum should apply: the proximal should precede the distal.

I've been working with a few others to try to make this point with plant functional traits and ecological patterns for a review that Science green-lighted. In short, when looking to explain ecological phenomena, the mechanisms explored should be the closest to the mechanisms that generate the pattern. 

If drought is thought to cause mortality in a system and one is trying to understand which plants would survive drought the best, measure whole-plant drought tolerance first. Then begin to examine more distal underlying traits. Don't start measuring traits like SLA or screening genes until drought tolerance has been quantified.

Pratt et al. 2008 show a good example of the approach. The authors grew up a series of chaparral species from seed and monitored their performance over a dry summer. Those species that could withstand low water potentials the best, suffered lower mortality.

The same approach applies for a range of other cases, but each time it is important to be clear about what the processes are that are hypothesized to generate the patterns of interest and then measure the functional traits that are most closely related to them. 

There has been over-reliance on general leaf traits, for example, that has generated a lot of frustration (and frustratingly low explanatory power). In contrast, when ecologists directly measure the ability of plants to tolerate low resource availability, for example, ecological patterns are explained better.

Defining the pattern of interest, generating hypotheses about their causes, and clearly linking form and function is a heck of a lot harder than going out and measuring SLA. 

Ultimately, when the proximal precedes the distal, more explanation is generated.

We'll see how we do making the case for the proximal in this review.

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