University of Oulu

Thomas HJD, Myers‐Smith IH, Bjorkman AD, et al. Traditional plant functional groups explain variation in economic but not size‐related traits across the tundra biome. Global Ecol Biogeogr. 2019;28:78–95.

Traditional plant functional groups explain variation in economic but not size‐related traits across the tundra biome

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Author: Thomas, H. J. D.1; Myers‐Smith, I. H.1; Bjorkman, A. D.1,2,3;
Elmendorf, S. C.4; Blok, D.5; Cornelissen, J. H. C.6; Forbes, B. C.7; Hollister, R. D.8; Normand, S.2; Prevéy, J. S.9; Rixen, C.9; Schaepman‐Strub, G.10; Wilmking, M.11; Wipf, S.9; Cornwell, W. K.12; Kattge, J.13,14; Goetz, S. J.15; Guay, K. C.16; Alatalo, J. M.17; Anadon‐Rosell, A.11,18,19; Angers‐Blondin, S.1; Berner, L. T.15; Björk, R. G.20,21; Buchwal, A.22,23; Buras, A.24; Carbognani, M.25; Christie, K.26; Siegwart Collier, L.27; Cooper, E. J.28; Eskelinen, A.14,29,30; Frei, E. R.31; Grau, O.32; Grogan, P.33; Hallinger, M.34; Heijmans, M. M. P. D.35; Hermanutz, L.27; Hudson, J. M. G.36; Hülber, K.37; Iturrate‐Garcia, M.10; Iversen, C. M.38; Jaroszynska, F.39; Johnstone, J. F.40; Kaarlejärvi, E.41,42,43; Kulonen, A.9,39; Lamarque, L. J.44; Lévesque, E.44; Michelsen, A.45,46; Milbau, A.47; Nabe‐Nielsen, J.2; Nielsen, S. S.2; Ninot, J. M.18,19; Oberbauer, S. F.48; Olofsson, J.41; Onipchenko, V. G.49; Petraglia, A.25; Rumpf, S. B.37; Semenchuk, P. R.28,37; Soudzilovskaia, N. A.50; Spasojevic, M. J.51; Speed, J. D. M.52; Tape, K. D.53; te Beest, M.41,54; Tomaselli, M.25; Trant, A.27,55; Treier, U. A.2; Venn, S.56,57; Vowles, T.20; Weijers, S.58; Zamin, T.33; Atkin, O. K.56; Bahn, M.59; Blonder, B.60,61; Campetella, G.62; Cerabolini, B. E. L.63; Chapin III, F. S.64; Dainese, M.65; de Vries, F. T.66; Díaz, S.67; Green, W.68; Jackson, R. B.69; Manning, P.3; Niinemets, Ü.70; Ozinga, W. A.35; Peñuelas, J.32,71; Reich, P. B.72,73; Schamp, B.74; Sheremetev, S.75; van Bodegom, P. M.50
Organizations: 1School of Geosciences, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, United Kingdom
2Ecoinformatics and Biodiversity, Department of Bioscience, Aarhus University, Aarhus, Denmark
3Senckenberg Gesellschaft für Naturforschung, Biodiversity and Climate Research Centre (SBiK‐F), Frankfurt, Germany
4Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research, University of Colorado, Boulder, Colorado
5Department of Physical Geography and Ecosystem Science, Lund University, Lund, Sweden
6Department of Ecological Science, Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam, The Netherlands
7Arctic Centre, University of Lapland, Rovaniemi, Finland
8Biology Department, Grand Valley State University, Allendale, Michigan
9WSL Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research SLF, Davos, Switzerland
10Department of Evolutionary Biology and Environmental Studies, University of Zurich, Zurich, Switzerland
11Institute for Botany and Landscape Ecology, Greifswald University, Greifswald, Germany
12School of Biological Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of New South Wales, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia
13Max Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry, Jena, Germany
14German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv), Halle‐Jena‐Leipzig, Germany
15School of Informatics, Computing, and Cyber Systems, Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff, Arizona
16Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences, Boothbay, Maine
17Department of Biological and Environmental Sciences, Qatar University, Doha, Qatar
18Department of Evolutionary Biology, Ecology and Environmental Sciences, University of Barcelona, Barcelona, Spain
19Biodiversity Research Institute, University of Barcelona, Barcelona, Spain
20Department of Earth Sciences, University of Gothenburg, Gothenburg, Sweden
21Gothenburg Global Biodiversity Centre, Gothenburg, Sweden
22Institute of Geoecology and Geoinformation, Adam Mickiewicz University, Poznan, Poland
23Department of Biological Sciences, University of Alaska Anchorage, Anchorage, Alaska
24Forest Ecology and Forest Management, Wageningen University and Research, Wageningen, Netherlands
25Department of Chemistry, Life Sciences and Environmental Sustainability, University of Parma, Parma, Italy
26The Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Juneau, Alaska
27Department of Biology, Memorial University, St John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada
28Department of Arctic and Marine Biology, UiT‐The Arctic University of Norway, Tromsø, Norway
29Department of Physiological Diversity, Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research – UFZ, Leipzig, Germany
30Department of Ecology and Genetics, University of Oulu, Oulu, Finland
31Department of Geography, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
32Global Ecology Unit, CREAF‐CSIC‐UAB‐UB, Bellaterra, Spain
33Department of Biology, Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario, Canada
34Biology Department, Swedish Agricultural University (SLU), Uppsala, Sweden
35Plant Ecology and Nature Conservation Group, Wageningen University & Research, Wageningen, The Netherlands
36British Columbia Public Service, British Columbia, Canada
37Department of Botany and Biodiversity Research, University of Vienna, Vienna, Austria
38Climate Change Science Institute and Environmental Sciences Division, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Oak Ridge, Tennessee
39Department of Biology, University of Bergen, Bergen, Norway
40Department of Biology, University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, Canada
41Department of Ecology and Environmental Sciences, Umeå University, Umeå, Sweden
42Department of Biology, Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB), Brussels, Belgium
43Faculty of Biological and Environmental Sciences, University of Helsinki, Helsinki, Finland
44Département des Sciences de l'Environnement and Centres d'études nordiques, Université du Québec à Trois‐Rivières, Trois‐Rivières, Quebec, Canada
45Department of Biology, University of Copenhagen, Copenhagen, Denmark
46Center for Permafrost (CENPERM), University of Copenhagen, Copenhagen, Denmark
47Research Institute for Nature and Forest (INBO), Brussels, Belgium
48Department of Biological Sciences, Florida International University, Miami, Florida
49Department of Geobotany, Lomonosov Moscow State University, Moscow, Russia
50Environmental Biology, Department Institute of Environmental Sciences, CML, Leiden University, Leiden, The Netherlands
51Department of Biology, University of California Riverside, Riverside, California
52NTNU University Museum, Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Trondheim, Norway
53Water and Environmental Research Center, University of Alaska, Fairbanks, Alaska
54Environmental Sciences, Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development, Utrecht University, Utrecht, The Netherlands
55School of Environment, Resources and Sustainability, University of Waterloo, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada
56Research School of Biology, Australian National University, Acton, ACT, Australia
57Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life and Environmental Sciences, Deakin University, Burwood, Victoria, Australia
58Department of Geography, University of Bonn, Bonn, Germany
59Department of Ecology, University of Innsbruck, Innsbruck, Austria
60Environmental Change Institute, School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford, Oxford, United Kingdom
61Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory, Crested Butte, Colorado
62School of Biosciences & Veterinary Medicine ‐ Plant Diversity and Ecosystems Management Unit, University of Camerino, Camerino, Italy
63DiSTA, University of Insubria, Varese, Italy
64Institute of Arctic Biology, University of Alaska, Fairbanks, Alaska
65Department of Animal Ecology and Tropical Biology, University of Würzburg, Würzburg, Germany
66School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, The University of Manchester, Manchester, United Kingdom
67Instituto Multidisciplinario de Biología Vegetal (IMBIV), CONICET and FCEFyN, Universidad Nacional de Córdoba, Córdoba, Argentina
68Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts
69Department of Earth System Science, Stanford University, Stanford, California
70Institute of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, Estonian University of Life Sciences, Tartu, Estonia
71CREAF, Cerdanyola del Vallès, Spain
72Department of Forest Resources, University of Minnesota, St. Paul, Minneapolis, Minnesota
73Hawkesbury Institute for the Environment, Western Sydney University, Penrith, NSW, Australia
74Department of Biology, Algoma University, Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, Canada
75Komarov Botanical Institute, St Petersburg, Russia
Format: article
Version: published version
Access: open
Online Access: PDF Full Text (PDF, 6.5 MB)
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Language: English
Published: John Wiley & Sons, 2019
Publish Date: 2019-06-20


Aim: Plant functional groups are widely used in community ecology and earth system modelling to describe trait variation within and across plant communities. However, this approach rests on the assumption that functional groups explain a large proportion of trait variation among species. We test whether four commonly used plant functional groups represent variation in six ecologically important plant traits.

Location: Tundra biome.

Time period: Data collected between 1964 and 2016.

Major taxa studied: 295 tundra vascular plant species.

Methods: We compiled a database of six plant traits (plant height, leaf area, specific leaf area, leaf dry matter content, leaf nitrogen, seed mass) for tundra species. We examined the variation in species‐level trait expression explained by four traditional functional groups (evergreen shrubs, deciduous shrubs, graminoids, forbs), and whether variation explained was dependent upon the traits included in analysis. We further compared the explanatory power and species composition of functional groups to alternative classifications generated using post hoc clustering of species‐level traits.

Results: Traditional functional groups explained significant differences in trait expression, particularly amongst traits associated with resource economics, which were consistent across sites and at the biome scale. However, functional groups explained 19% of overall trait variation and poorly represented differences in traits associated with plant size. Post hoc classification of species did not correspond well with traditional functional groups, and explained twice as much variation in species‐level trait expression.

Main conclusions: Traditional functional groups only coarsely represent variation in well‐measured traits within tundra plant communities, and better explain resource economic traits than size‐related traits. We recommend caution when using functional group approaches to predict tundra vegetation change, or ecosystem functions relating to plant size, such as albedo or carbon storage. We argue that alternative classifications or direct use of specific plant traits could provide new insights for ecological prediction and modelling.

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Series: Global ecology and biogeography. A journal of macroecology
ISSN: 1466-822X
ISSN-E: 1466-822X
ISSN-L: 1466-822X
Volume: 28
Issue: 2
Pages: 78 - 95
DOI: 10.1111/geb.12783
Type of Publication: A1 Journal article – refereed
Field of Science: 1181 Ecology, evolutionary biology
Funding: The project was funded by the UK Natural Environment Research Council [ShrubTundra Project NE/M016323/1 (IMS, AB, HT, SAB, DG) & PhD Studentship NE/L002558/1 (HT)], the Synthesis Centre of the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv) Halle‐Jena‐Leipzig (DFG FZT 118; sTundra working group [postdoctoral fellowship to AB]). The study has been supported by the TRY initiative on plant traits ( The TRY initiative and database is hosted at the Max Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry, Jena, Germany. TRY is currently supported by DIVERSITAS/Future Earth and the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv) Halle‐Jena‐Leipzig. Authors were supported by the Swedish Research Council (2015‐00465) (DB) and (2015‐00498) (EK), Marie Skłodowska Curie Actions (INCA 600398) (DB), the National Science Foundation (USA; RH), the Carlsberg Foundation (2013‐01‐0825) (SN), the Danish Council for Independent Research ‐ Natural Sciences (DFF 4181‐00565) (SN), European Research Council Synergy grant ERC‐SyG‐2013‐610028 IMBALANCE‐P (JP), University of Zurich Research Priority Program on Global Change and Biodiversity (GSS, MIG), the Office of Biological and Environmental Research in the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Science (Next‐Generation Ecosystem Experiments in the Arctic ‐ NGEE Arctic) (CMI), NASA Arctic Boreal Vulnerability Experiment ‐ ABoVE (LB, SG), The Swiss National Science Foundation (EF, AK, SV), NSERC Canada (EL, JJ, AP, BSPG, TZ), ArcticNet (EL, AP, GH), The US National Science Foundation Niwot Ridge LTER (DEB‐1637686) (MJ), Long‐Term Ecological Research (DEB‐1234162) (PR) and Long‐Term Research in Environmental Biology (DEB‐1242531) (PR), Organismo Autónomo Parques Nacionales (JMN), the Arctic Research Centre, Denmark (JNN), RSF (#14‐50‐000290) (VO), the Polar Continental Shelf Program (AP, EL, GH), the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (GH), the Montagna di Torricchio Nature Reserve (Italy) (GC) the Academy of Finland Decisions no. 256991 (BF), JPI Climate no. 291581 (BF), and the BBSRC David Phillips Fellowship (BB/L02456X/1) (FTdV)
Copyright information: © 2018 The Authors. Global Ecology and Biogeography Published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd. This is an open access article under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits use, distribution and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.