Jenny Ordonez & Peter van Bodegom Discuss Strategies That Plants Use to Survive

Emerging Research FRonts Commentary, June 2011

Jenny Ordonez

Article: A global study of relationships between leaf traits, climate and soil measures of nutrient fertility

Authors: Ordonez, JC;van Bodegom, PM;Witte, JPM;Wright, IJ;Reich, PB;Aerts, R
Journal: GLOBAL ECOL BIOGEOGR, 18 (2): 137-149, MAR 2009
Addresses: Inst Ecol Sci, Dept Syst Ecol, Boelelaan 1085, NL-1081 HV Amsterdam, Netherlands.
Inst Ecol Sci, Dept Syst Ecol, NL-1081 HV Amsterdam, Netherlands.
KWR Watercycle Res Inst, NL-3430 BB Nieuwegein, Netherlands.
Macquarie Univ, Dept Biol Sci, Sydney, NSW 2109, Australia.
Univ Minnesota, Dept Forest Resources, St Paul, MN 55108 USA.

Jenny Ordonez & Peter van Bodegom talk with and answer a few questions about this month's Emerging Research Front paper in the field of Environment/Ecology.

SW: Why do you think your paper is highly cited?

This study is one of the first attempts to link plant traits to measured soil data on a large gradient of soil fertility in different regions of the world. This study showed the role of soil fertility as a habitat filter on plant trait expression, so far studies focused on linking traits to climate alone.

SW: Does it describe a new discovery, methodology, or synthesis of knowledge?

This article brings quantitative evidence on how plant traits change with soil fertility. There has been extensive research and qualitative conceptualizations on how plants respond to soil fertility, but the quantification of this response across different plant species and locations around the world was lacking.

SW: Would you summarize the significance of your paper in layman's terms?

In nature, the shape, size, thickness, and composition of various plant organs or of a whole plant give us hints of the strategies plants use to survive. These strategies (reflected in these plant traits) are shaped by biotic factors, as well as abiotic factors, such as soil fertility.

Jenny Ordonez
Coauthor Peter van Bodegom

In our study we could quantify how soil fertility determines the leaf traits of plants: in fertile soils plants tend to have thin, flimsy leaves with large amounts of nutrients, but with short life spans. On infertile soils plants have leathery, thick leaves with low nutrient content, but which are able to live for long periods. This pattern occurs independently of whether a plant is a tree a grass or an herb, and independently of the location in the world. Thus it reflects a general plant response to soil fertility.

SW: How did you become involved in this research, and how would you describe the particular challenges, setbacks, and successes that you've encountered along the way?

This research was carried out as part of a project to study the effects of climate change on vegetation composition in The Netherlands. Traits reflect how abiotic factors, including climate, affect vegetation and may therefore be used to functionally link climate to vegetation.

The most challenging part of studying plant responses to abiotic factors (not only soil fertility) is to try to understand what drives trait variability: If we look at a small patch of grassland, we will see that there are many plants with different traits living in a relatively homogeneous soil. Thus, for any given level of soil fertility there is a wide variability in traits displayed by plants. This means that although the environment set the rules of the game, there is still plenty of room to play.

We tried to quantify the part of this trait variability that can be explained by adaptation to compete for other resources (light) and to endure biomass removal in disturbed sites. Still, understanding the drivers of trait variability needs further research.

SW: Where do you see your research leading in the future?

We will continue to work in linking multiple environmental drivers to multiple traits to better understand how traits are being selected, alone and in concert.

SW: Do you foresee any social or political implications for your research?

The aim of the research we pursue is to increase our understanding of how vegetation responds to abiotic factors. This question (probably as old as ecology itself), still remains within the realm of our fundamental understanding of ecological processes. Nevertheless, we consider that a better understanding of ecological processes is not a purely scientific, but also an urgent societal matter if we are to develop effective policy and conservation measures to maintain natural ecosystems.End

Dr. Jenny Ordonez
Wageningen University
Law and Governance Department
Wageningen, the Netherlands

Dr. Peter van Bodegom
VU University Amsterdam
Department of Systems Ecology
Amsterdam, the Netherlands



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