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A functional approach to analyzing long-term change in plant communities

How do plant traits affect their likelihood of occupying different habitats and how they respond to deer browsing, climate change, and habitat fragmentation?

Biomes around the world are experiencing species losses, biotic homogenization, and invasions of non-native species. We are documenting these processes by systematically resurveying forest plant communities in the upper Midwest first surveyed 50+ years ago. Our work confirms that all three processes are occurring in the upland forests of Wisconsin even in the absence of direct habitat destruction or conversion. Differences among sites in the rates of species loss, homogenization, and invasion implicate particular drivers of ecological change including succession, habitat fragmentation, and herbivory by white-tailed deer. Exotic earthworm invasions, climate change, and other factors are also affecting community dynamics. We propose to extend this work in two important ways.

Trait Table

First, we will re-survey lowland forests subject to higher rates of growth and ecological turnover than the upland forests sampled so far. Accentuated changes at these sites should allow us to test more precisely the separate and combined effects of soil, light, invasive shrubs, and landscape conditions on plant community composition and dynamics.

Second, we propose to investigate the mechanisms driving shifts in community composition by exploring how plant functional traits affect the distribution and abundance of species within and among sites experiencing contrasting ecological conditions.
This work involves compiling an extensive database on a broad set of plant traits from published sources, lab analyses, and measurements in the field. These data will allow us to evaluate how ecological conditions interact with species characteristics to affect the dynamic processes of colonization, persistence, and local extinction. We will also use these data to test theories of community composition and dynamics based on neutral models and interactions between functional traits and stochastic factors.

List of plant traits: PDF or Excel

This project was supported by the NSF - Ecology program (DEB-0717315)