The world’s largest database on plants’ functional properties, or traits, has been published. Scientists compiled 3 million traits for 69,000 out of the world’s 300,000 plant species. The achievement rests on a worldwide collaboration of scientists from 106 research institutions, including the University of Missouri¬–St. Louis. The first release of the initiative known as TRY was published recently in the journal “Global Change Biology.”

TRY is hosted at the Max Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry in Jena, Germany. Jointly coordinated with the University of Leipzig in Germany; IMBIV-CONICET in Cordoba, Argentina; Macquarie University in Sydney; National Centre for Science Research in Paris; and University of Paris-Sud, TRY promises to become an essential tool for biodiversity research and Earth-system sciences.

“The TRY initiative is an exciting collaborative network of scientists. By bringing together data on plants from all across the global, we will be able to better predict how floras will respond to future climate conditions,” said Amy Zanne, assistant professor of biology at UMSL, who led the compilation of several large plant trait databases such as global wood density and global vessel anatomy. “These responses can have large implications for carbon cycling and thus feedbacks to climate change. Additionally, the database contains information for close to 70,000 different species, allowing us new insight into the whys and hows behind the diversity of plant species we see today.”

Zanne was invited because of her existing trait databases. As part of TRY, she must consider sharing databases with researchers on a project-by-project basis.

“I just approved a request to share my data with researchers trying to understand how urban trees are built and function,” Zanne said.

Plant traits – their morphological and physiological properties – determine how plants compete for resources – light, water and soil nutrients – and where and how fast they can grow. Ultimately they determine how plants influence ecosystem properties such as rates of nutrient cycling, water use and carbon dioxide uptake.

Analyses of the TRY database demonstrate for the first time on a global scale that most of the observed trait variation is represented by differences among plant species. In contrast, plant functional types, such as used in global vegetation models, contribute much less to the trait variations – some as little as 25 percent. This example illustrates the advantages of trait-based vegetation models, facilitating a more realistic and empirically grounded representation of terrestrial biodiversity in Earth system models. Such models may not only be helpful to predict the development of future climate, carbon sequestration or ocean levels but also provide a basis for mitigation strategies.

The TRY initiative, developed under the auspices of International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme and International Programme of Biodiversity Science, is a communal and worldwide collaborative initiative.

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Kylie Shafferkoetter

Kylie Shafferkoetter