Functional types, climatic change and species richness


(corresponding author,

Editors' Award 2012

The Journal of Vegetation Science Editors' Award for the outstanding paper of 2012 goes to Sebastian Schmidtlein, for his team's “Mapping plant strategy types using remote sensing” (Schmidtlein et al. 2012). The two journals of the International Association for Vegetation Science (IAVS) – Journal of Vegetation Science and Applied Vegetation Science – have been leaders in publishing research into functional attributes/functional types, and also into remote sensing of vegetation. Schmidtlein et al. draw these two together. The most well established plant functional classification, C-S-R (Grime 2001), has previously been used to classify individual species, or generalized to the community by sampling quadrats and averaging the scores of the species therein. Schmidtlein et al. (2012) do this, but then investigate whether the C-S-R status of a vegetation patch can be detected by remote sensing. They analysed 105 spectral bands from airborne images, with a resolution of a few metres. The pixels were calibrated against 40 ground plots, using step-down regression. Maps of C and S strategies derived from remote sensing matched well those obtained from quadrats. High-fertility fen sites with C-strategists bore denser vegetation, reflecting brighter green. S-strategists were identified on the ombrogenous bog. R-strategists were not differentiated well, but they were sparse in the area so the data set used did not provide a good test. This paper leads the way towards more ecologically-focused use of remote sensing.

Sebastian Schmidtlein receives ₤100 worth of Wiley-Blackwell books of his choice, courtesy of our publishers, as well as featuring on the journal's web page. He has been a leader in vegetation mapping research, and since his paper was accepted he has become an Associate Editor of the two IAVS journals.

Other commended papers of 2012

Functional traits/types/texture

Often the aim of characterizing plant communities by functional traits and functional types (e.g. Díaz et al. 1992, 2004), the vegetation ‘texture’ of Jan Barkman (1979), is to correlate texture with the environment. The problem is not that this is difficult to do. It's too easy. There are many ways of doing it, and ecologists would like to know which is best. Kleyer et al. (2012) list eight common research questions and test seven correlative methods. They conclude that each method is valuable, and the ‘best’ method depends on the question being asked and the nature of the data. This will provide important guidance for future work.

Ellenberg values for plant species are commonly used in Europe as indicators of site conditions. The scientific literature is full of papers based on this approach, for both pure and applied topics. Another paper nominated for the Editors' Award, that of Zelený & Schaffers (2012), highlights the circularity involved when the environmental conditions within plots are estimated from the mean Ellenberg values of their species and then related, using statistical tests, to species composition or variables dependent on it, including species richness. The authors evaluate the degree of inflation of significance values, and provide a modified permutation test that reduces the problem.

Climatic change

Amongst the recent literature predicting vegetation responses to possible climatic change, many workers have examined altitudinal zonation, assuming that if the climate warms, altitudinal belts will be displaced upwards, with some being forced off the top of the mountain. There are obvious complications, such as dispersal limitation. In contrast to speculation on the future movement of vegetation, Speed et al. (2012) observed it over 8 yr, and found that stock management prevented the simple movement of zones. In the absence of herbivores, an altitudinal advance of 3 m was indeed seen, but under sheep grazing the change could be prevented, or even reversed. This is an important message for all those researchers who seek signals of climatic change by comparing altitudinal trends in species distribution, or who predict them: interactions with other factors are important!

Climatic change is supposedly caused by atmospheric CO2, so sequestration of carbon is a worldwide concern. One hope is sequestration by tropical rain forests. This is almost impossible to measure directly so indirect methods of estimation are necessary. Clark & Kellner (2012) make an important contribution by pointing out sources of bias and error that are not always recognized: (1) sampling being in convenient locations near roads or rivers, (2) scaling from tree measurements to biomass without knowing the wood density of all the species, (3) measuring only trees with perfect form, (4) using poor biomass estimates for lianas and palms, and (5) converting inaccurately from biomass to carbon.

Species richness

For the latter part of his life R.H. Whittaker was concerned with species richness, in the hope that it would be a unifying feature of plant communities worldwide. After fieldwork across the globe, he concluded: “It isn't” (seminar to the University of Texas at Austin, 1977). However, one of his special interests was locating areas with extraordinarily high richness (Naveh & Whittaker 1979). Two papers in the Journal of Vegetation Science in 2012 continue this fascination. Wilson et al. (2012) developed a graph first presented by Bob Peet to an IAVS conference way back in the mists of time (perhaps 1993), to show the maximum species richness values recorded at spatial grains from 1 mm2 to 1 ha. They found a richness/area relation remarkably close to the one that Preston (1962) had proposed for isolates. Extrapolated to the land area of the Earth it gave a close prediction of the world flora. This does not explain the cause of high richness. Tropical rain forests are unrivalled for high richness within plots of 100 m2 or larger, but surprisingly high richness can also be found in some forest types of temperate or boreal zones, such as in the mountains of southern Siberia (Chytrý et al. 2012). The authors suggested causes: a large regional species pool, environmental stability since the late Pleistocene, landscape heterogeneity, an open tree canopy, relatively benign environmental conditions and limited competition in the herb layer. Future work could usefully evaluate the relative contributions of these factors.

The journal

Wiley-Blackwell and Editorial Office

We are again grateful for the excellent co-operation we receive from our publishers Wiley-Blackwell. Their subcontractors Editorial Office Ltd continue to give us superb service, notably Sally Sellwood as editorial assistant for the two IAVS journals. Editorial Office Ltd are based in Overton, a village in deepest Hampshire, UK. The firm seems to consist largely of the wives of London commuters, who divide their time between editorial work on the one hand, and looking after children and chickens on the other. Manuscripts, once accepted, were dealt with until recently by Graeme Henderson at Wiley's Production Office in Edinburgh, but production is now outsourced. It was a shock to hear Graeme speaking on the phone in a Scots accent, but some do up there, and he has given us excellent service: careful, efficient, flexible and always helpful. We thank him for all his work for us, and wish him well for the future. He sets a very high standard that we hope the new providers will meet. Our editors have given us excellent service too. Some have been with us for several terms and we hope this reflects the affection they have for the journal.

Commentaries and syntheses

Commentaries will now be published in the Journal, giving the background around one or two papers in each issue.

We have always been delighted to publish review papers that use the available theory and/or empirical information to reach a new synthesis. We have asked all our editors to be on the lookout for these, and Norman Mason has agreed to take this on as a particular task. To emphasize that we are not looking for simple summaries of the literature, we have invented a new category of paper: Synthesis. Submissions are welcome. The trouble with categories is that people get worried when they have a manuscript that falls part way between categories. Don't bend your manuscript to fit into ordinary/synthesis/forum/report: just send us your paper and we'll bend the categories to fit if necessary.

Book reviews are no longer being solicited for the Journal, but they may be carried by the IAVS Bulletin, sent to all members.


Last year, we mentioned our new standards for the formats of appendices. This year, at the prompting of one of our authors, we have decided that so long as the basic material is given in our standard formats, we can host other types of file – videos, functional spreadsheets, executable program files, etc. – in the format of the author's choice.

The website

‘Vegetation science’ is a rather European phrase, reflecting the German origin of IAVS. Our new subtitle, ‘Advances in plant community ecology’, is intended to clarify that we cover the full range of topics in the structure and functioning of plant communities. Our scope covers natural communities and other spontaneous ones, such as weeds or understories of forest plantations, whilst excluding studies of planted species themselves. The conservation/restoration/management/survey of plant communities is covered by our sister journal, Applied Vegetation Science.

Our online tables of contents now have for each paper a short summary and an image, to give the reader a better impression of what the paper's about. There can be a video too, if the author wants.

International Association for Vegetation Science

The IAVS Annual Symposium for 2013 will be in Tartu, Estonia, June 26–30, with associated field excursions: These Symposia offer an opportunity for plant community ecologists to meet each other, and to meet Wiley-Blackwell representatives. This may be the best IAVS Symposium ever.