100 Influential Papers - page 23

Grime, J.P. & Hunt, R. (1975)
Relative growth rate: its range and adaptive
significance in a local flora.
Journal of Ecology,
63, 393-422.
Plant traits, and especially studies on the ecological
significance of interspecific variation in plant traits,
have been super hot for some years now. But it is fair
to acknowledge that this booming research activity is
firmly rooted in Grime and Hunt’s 1975 paper in the
Journal of Ecology
. This is where they pioneered the
standardised screening of multiple plant species for traits
underpinning ecological strategies. They demonstrated
that the inherent relative growth rate measured under
standardized conditions in the lab (referred to as
), is a strong predictor of the quality of the natural
environments that the species inhabit, and of the
ecological roles they play in those environments. ‘R
has been used to define a species’ strategy along axes
defined by stress and disturbance regimes. It is therefore
no coincidence that ‘R
’, and the traits underpinning
it, have since become tremendously popular globally as
powerful predictors of (changing) ecosystem functions
and services related to carbon and nutrient cycling. These
relationships are now being ubiquitously applied in, for
instance, biodiversity conservation, agriculture and global
change research. Grime and Hunt (1975) have certainly
earned their invitation to the BES centenary party.
Hans Cornelissen
Cornelissen, J.H.C. (1996)
An experimental comparison
of leaf decomposition rates
in a wide range of temperate
plant species and types.
of Ecology, 84, 573-582.
It has long been established that chemical and physical characteristics
of plant litter (i.e., ‘litter quality’) are important predictors of litter
decomposition rates, but work on this topic has historically been
conducted without much consideration of the ecology of the plant
species producing the litter. The paper of Cornelissen (1996) broke
new ground, through being the first major study to attempt to link
across-species variation in litter decomposability to the ecological
attributes of these species. This work involved placing litters of 125
highly contrasting British plant species in a common soil environment
or ‘litter bed’ and measuring their mass loss through decomposition
over time. It showed that litter decomposability varied greatly
according to plant life form, deciduous versus evergreen habit,
leaf colour at litter-fall, taxonomic status, and level of evolutionary
advancement. As such, this work revealed for the first time that plant
ecological and taxonomic characteristics could have considerable
predictive power for determining litter decomposition rates. This
work has underpinned considerable subsequent activity aimed at
understanding the comparative ecology of plant litter decomposition,
including in relation to plant traits spectra (notably the ‘leaf
economics spectrum’), the impacts of global environmental change,
coordination of strategies among different plant tissues, and linkages
between decomposition and herbivory.
David Wardle
Lavorel, S. & Garnier, E. (2002)
Predicting changes in community composition and ecosystem functioning from plant traits: revisiting
the Holy Grail.
Functional Ecology, 16, 545-556.
The extensive number of species found in many ecosystems has been historically reduced to a few discrete groups of taxa sharing life
form and some key, general traits. These groupings were refined over time by accounting for specific, individual traits that could be
quantified and linked to certain ecological functions, which led to the notion of functional types or groups of organisms. The grouping
was useful for studies in hyperdiverse ecosystems but its most attractive side was the potential link of these groups to different
ecosystem properties and functions. Lavorel & Garnier (2002) made not only a useful review of the traits selected by previous authors
but more importantly they suggested two main categories of traits, which they called response and effect traits, the former affecting
community structure and diversity and the latter related to ecosystem functioning. The Holy Grail in search was to move forward from
simply grouping plant species to unveiling processes and even mechanisms behind community dynamics and ecosystem functioning
to gain generalization and predictive power. The paper fostered interesting research but had a number of limitations that were
experienced by the many scientists following this trait dichotomy (see web version). The diffuse limits between the categories and
other complexities make this Holy Grail still elusive.
Fernando Valladares
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