Plant Trait Databases

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IntroductionPlant trait databases


Fig. 12: Data Infrastructure of Ecology 


Throughout much of the 17th, 18th and 19th century the work of naturalists comprised of the collection of specimen, the despription of species and their systematic naming/classification (History of biology, Wikipedia). A wealth of the found scientific specimen are stored and preserved in natural history museums and collections around the globe (see ICOM). These "repositories of physical information" together with the information on species attributes (or traits) extracted from the findings and published at that time represent the data infrastructure of ecology (compare Figure 12).
Traditionally,information on plant traits, in particular information on morphology, has been merged into local floras and field guides (e.g. von Schlechtendal, Schenk & Langethal 1843). In contrast, life-history traits, i.e. traits generally believed to be crucial for species survival (i.e. persistence, regeneration and dispersal; Poschlod, Kleyer & Tackenberg 2000, Kleyer et al. 2008), have formerly been dealt with merely in special compendia (von Kirchner et al. 1904). However, unfortunately the majority of the published data is scattered and not easy to access.
To increase its utility IT-experts in collaboration with ecologists have recently built up digital databases primarily from the literature sources in order to synthesize information on plant traits. More and more of those databases as well as new ones are accessible online now.


Plant trait databases

Table 3 lists databases that contain traits of Central-European plant species.
Obviously, most are general purpose databases which are composed of life-history traits, of which many are likely to be of an individual-based character. In contrast, few databases are of rather special nature.
Noteworthy, the long-term research program maintained by the NERC Unit of Comparative Plant Ecology (UCPE) at the University of Sheffield, UK played a key role in the advancement of the whole field. The main elements of the UCPE research to develop a standardized database of plant functional traits were vegetation surveys and experiments in field plots and microcosms (Grime, Hodgson & Hunt 1996) - in addition to data assembled fom the literature. The methodology (Hendry & Grime 1993) has found widespread usage and the Electronic Comparative Plant Ecology orginating from the UCPE research has become an essential part of several databases listed in Table 3.
However, the most recent step was taken by the EU projet The LEDA Traitbase (Kleyer et al. 2008). This project developed a new online plant trait database for North-West Europe by integrating existing databases and filling knowledge gaps using vegetation surveys. Scientists are invited to further add data to the LEDA traitbase after approval by a LEDA editorial board, whether data standards were followed.
In contrast to other databases, that record the broad trait category for each species, the LEDA traitbase records the median, minimum and maximum of a trait for each species. This seems to be a tiny change at first glance, but it was a ground-breaking change for the development of UIBM as will be explained in the Universal Scaling Laws section.
The next stage of the research field, however, is already at the horizon: The TRY initiative aims to build up a global plant trait database.
In principle, trait databases have been successfully applied in two areas of research: (1) the analysis of community response to environmental change and (2) the analysis of ecosystem response to the trait composition of the community (compare Kleyer et al. 2008). Nevertheless, plant traitbases have never been used for the generation of large-scale database-driven biodiversity models (but see Lehsten 2005).

Table 3: European plant trait databases

Database  Region  Notes 
LEDA Traitbase  Northwest Europe  general purpose, life history traits  
The Ecological Flora of the British Isles  United Kingdom  general purpose, life history traits and more 
The Electronic Comparative Plant Ecology (Hodgson et al. 1995) (Excel Table)   United Kingdom  general purpose, plant functional traits, life history traits  
BiolFlor  Germany  general purpose, life history traits and more 
BioPop  Germany  general purpose, life history traits 
GLOPNET, Whight et al. (2004)  World  special purpose, leaf tarits  
Seed Information Database (SID)   World  special purpose, seed traits 
Palynological Database  World  special purpose, pollen traits 



The databases presented in this section provide individual-based life-history or - in IBM-terms - life-cycle trait information for all species of the Central-European Flora in an idential manner.
Therefore, plant trait databases seem to be well suited for species construction within UIBM. Futher, databases are likely able to fuulfill the data requirements of IBMs to the extent that is needed for the development of a biodiversity model.
However, in the next section the necessary universal methodology for the transformation of the traitbase informmation into virtual plants that are able to survive in a virtual world. The methodology actually relies heavily on trait minima/maxima contained in the LEDA traitbase.


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Copyright Dec. 2009 Dr. U. Grueters



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