Editors’ Award, experimental approaches, functional traits and ecoinformatics


Editor's Award for 2011, and mesocosm experiments in vegetation science

Experiments are important for vegetation studies. Descriptive studies and field experiments have important places in it, but the journal is certainly interested in mesocosm/greenhouse experiments that enable us to understand the structuring and functioning of communities. An important contribution to that functioning is made by arbuscular mycorrhizae, known since the 1950s (Morrison 1957) to be crucial for the growth of many plants, and now realised to affect the composition of the whole community (van der Heijden et al. 1998). Appreciation of their rôle has been rising steadily, for example the number of papers in the Web of Science with a variant of mycorrhiza in their title was 20 in 1970, rising to 470 in 2010. Ecologists have always been aware of the soil fauna, but David Wardle's book (Wardle 2002) highlighted their inter-relations with plants. Wurst et al. (2011) examined their interactions. They present a well-designed experiment with seven-species mesocosms, ±mycorrhizal fungi, ±earthworms, and to examine effects on invasibility ±the addition of five invader species. The presence of mycorrhizal fungi changed the species composition, whilst earthworms mainly affected the shoot:root balance. Mycorrhizae often interact with other processes, such as herbivory (Koricheva et al. 2009), but effects of these two types of soil organism were independent. The authors interpreted this as their causing different types of niche construction. Invasibility was increased by mycorrhizae and earthworms, though more for some invaders than for others, so species composition would be affected. Well-conducted experiments, relevant to field communities, give an invaluable insight into the workings and construction of vegetation, and we value them highly in the Journal. Susanne Wurst receives the Journal's Editors’ Award for 2011, carrying with it £100 worth of Wiley-Blackwell books, as well as publicity of their paper on the Journal's web site.

Functional traits

A runner-up for our award was the work of Mason et al. (2011) linking palatability and decomposability traits to vegetation functioning. They assembled an extensive, purpose-collected dataset of plant traits. As well as the usual, easy-to-measure specific leaf area, the authors measured characters half way to the ‘hard’ characters sensu Díaz et al. (1998): contents of nutrients, fibre, lignin, tannins, etc. They matched this with a 200-yr ‘chronosequence’ of coastal forest in New Zealand, with biomass estimates for each species. The results demonstrated an important pattern in plant succession that has rarely been mentioned in the literature, of increasing palatability and decomposability. This fits the initial movement across the CSR triangle from the R corner towards the middle as proposed by Grime (2001). The authors suggest the trends might reverse in the 200- to 400-yr period, i.e. that S-type traits might re-appear, matching the later successional decrease towards the S corner that Grime envisages. The Journal of Vegetation Science has led the way in the use of traits to describe plant communities, from Montalvo et al. (1991) in our second volume, with a Special Feature on ‘Plant functional types and climatic change’ in volume 7 (1996), through the highly-cited Díaz & Cabido (1997), to the present. Another example of the functional-trait approach in the year we are surveying was Chaturvedi et al. (2011), showing that traits such as chlorophyll concentration and specific leaf area were 73% effective predictors of the RGR of the species of a tropical forest.

Threats to plant communities

The second runner-up was Stevens et al. (2011), a large-extent study of the effects of pollution across several countries of NW Europe. Their original dataset comprised sampling of vascular plant plus bryophyte species, soils, climate and location, and modelled nitrogen and sulphur deposition. Climate and soil chemistry contributed most to the variation in species composition, as expected, but 9.8% was explicable only by N and S deposition. The results suggested which species might increase/decrease with continued and further pollution. The increases were generally in common species, and the decreases in species intolerant of the acid soils that pollution can cause. This is a conservation danger for grasslands that are now only moderately acid. The work is of considerable importance for assessment of the effects of hypothesised global change. Besides using sets vegetation plots from large areas, the effects of air pollution and nutrient deposition on plant communities can also be studied locally by repeated sampling in permanent plots, as Hájková et al. (2011) did in mountain bogs sampled over 14–17 yr.

The literature on the problem of exotic invaders has exploded in the past decade. For control, early detection is important (Olckers 2004), yet sparsely-distributed occurrences are difficult to find. Carboni et al. (2011) propose a solution to this, modelling with GAMs likely invasion sites using environmental and geomorphological data, including the proximity of human structures and their type. They apply this method to sand dunes along part of the Italian coast. Distance from human structures was the best predictor of invader presence, with a small contribution from the environment (soil and wind).


A major event of 2011 for the Journal of Vegetation Science was the Special Issue ‘Ecoinformatics and climatic change’ (volume 22, issue 4). Mapping is important for the prediction of current and future vegetation. Ohmann et al. (2011) show how vegetation-plot databases can be used for distribution mapping, applying the rarely-used nearest-neighbour imputation method. Vegetation databases can also be used to assess temporal changes. For example, Jandt et al. (2011) do this for forest and grassland communities in Germany, using disparate sources, a useful early attempt that might spur future development of methods.

The Ecoinformatics Special Issue also contains two reports of developments in data availability and methods, both important for ecoinformatics workers. Dengler et al. (2011) give an overview of 132 vegetation-plot databases worldwide that currently comprise the Global Index of Vegetation-Plot Databases (GIVD). The databases cover the majority of the world, but with notable gaps in North Africa, through the Middle East to India and South-east Asia. The authors conclude: ‘The large amount of data registered in GIVD so far demonstrates that numerous vegetation plots are available in digital format and many researchers and institutions are willing to share these data’. There are limitations to the collection, such as different plot sizes (0.01–10 000 m2). The databases also have many different record formats. This is inevitable, and will always happen, since data had been sampled for different purposes. As the number of vegetation-plot databases and data in these databases steadily grows, there is an increasing need for tools that facilitate information exchange between them. Since 2003 the Ecoinformatics working group of the International Association for Vegetation Science, the parent of the Journal of Vegetation Science, has been developing the Veg-X standard for this, and Wiser et al. (2011) describe its development and structure.

The journal, our publishers and our editorial office

We are very grateful for the excellent co-operation we receive from Wiley-Blackwell Ltd. They have been happy to let us emphasise that the journal is owned by the International Association for Vegetation Science (IAVS) by placing the IAVS logo on the printed front cover and on the first page of each paper, where there has been a re-design for the first time since the journal foundation 20 yr ago. Another upcoming change will be online issue contents pages with a brief summary of each paper, with an image. The publishers, the editors and Editorial Office Ltd are working together well as a team. We can even credit our assistant at Editorial Office for encouraging us into the goat picture on the December issue cover.

We have been concerned about formats in appendices (electronic Supporting Information) in the past. We had allowed formats of the author's choice. However, formats go out of date quickly. Appendices can contain a range of material: large figures and tables, raw data, calculation examples, computer program source codes, extra photographs, etc. All such material should in future be in PDF format, which we believe may ensure its easy readability in the future. Several figures or photographs can appear in the same PDF, but in any case with the caption embedded in the PDF. Text that the reader might want to extract (including data, tables and computer program source codes) should also be in plain text (TXT or CSV), with any data/table columns separated by tabs. We don't know how future-proof this will be, but it seems the most likely to be useful to posterity.

Besides publishing the Journal of Vegetation Science and Applied Vegetation Science, the major activity of IAVS is its Annual Symposium, to be held in July 2012 in South Korea (see the link on the Journal's web site). It will be well worth attending for any scientist interested in the ecology of plant communities.