Challenging Theophrastus: A common core list of plant traits for functional ecology


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Abstract. Ecologists need a common language of plant traits in order to make comparisons across regions and scales, pool data, and maximize the utility of the data. To develop such a set of traits we began with the primary challenges faced by plants: dispersal, establishment, and persistence in order to identify fundamental traits. Most of these traits are hard to measure, but advances in comparative ecology have suggested a number of easy to measure analogs. Unfortunately, some of the fundamental traits have no simple analog. The common core list includes: seed mass, seed shape, dispersal mode, clonality, specific leaf area, leaf water content, height, above-ground biomass, life history, onset of flowering, stem density, and resprouting ability. Most of the traits can be measured quantitatively, but several traits on the list must still be measured qualitatively due to logistical problems or lack of an easy analog. Key problem areas include: dispersal ability, capacity for vegetative spread, germination, palatability, plasticity, and all the various below-ground traits. Comparative studies need to address these problem areas. The common core list is suggested as a common starting point for studies of functional ecology. The idiosyncrasies of regional floras and specific research agendas will dictate which traits can be ignored and those that need to be added.