Plants and their traits: major axes of specialization

Theme: Biodiversity, Ecology & Conservation

Primary Supervisor:

Neil Brummitt

Life Sciences Department, NHM

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Secondary Supervisor:

Jane Catford

Department of Geography, KCL

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Project Description:

Interactions between species and their environment are mediated through the variety of particular characteristics, or traits, found in that species. These traits help determine the position of species on three axes of specialisation: range size, population abundance and niche breadth. New sources of structured trait data for plants are rapidly coming on-stream, and the NHM has pioneered the automated mining of taxonomic descriptions for trait values. This project would use such trait data for a wide variety of plant species from around the world to identify the plant traits associated with each axis of specialisation, which in turn define the ecological responses of plant species in terms of their endemism, rarity and invasiveness. Each aspect of this determines the IUCN Red List status of plant species, and a recent assessment has found more than 20% worldwide to be under threat of extinction on IUCN criteria. About a third, however, are too poorly known for their status to be assessed, and this project would greatly help in highlighting which of these might be threatened, based on correlations of traits with already-assessed species. It would also refine dominant traits at much finer taxonomic and geographical scales than has been possible up to now, revealing differences in plant function between different ecosystems and regions of the world. An enterprising student would learn to analyse the complexity of plant form and function in detail, understand its ecological variation, and help improve one of the principle biodiversity indicators of the Convention on Biological Diversity.

Policy Impact of Research:

This research would help improve the precision of the plant component of one of the principle biodiversity indicators of the Convention on Biological Diversity: the IUCN Red List Index. It would help to expand the coverage of this indicator and allow results to be applicable at finer geographical scales.

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