Climate and soil determine the distribution of plant traits

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An international research team has succeeded in identifying the global factors that explain the diversity of form and function of plants. Led by the University of Zurich, the Max Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry in Jena and the University of Leipzig, the researchers collected and analyzed data on plants from around the world. For the first time, they showed for characteristics such as the size, structure and lifespan of plants how much these are determined by climate and soil properties. The resulting information could be crucial for improving models of the Earth system regarding the role of plant diversity.

The diversity of form and function of plants can be described in terms of morphological, physiological and biochemical characteristics. Traits across species have been shown previously to fall into two main categories within which each plant must maintain a balance: first, size; and second, the economics of metabolism. In a recent study in Ecology and evolution of nature, a team of researchers has now confirmed for the first time, using a significantly expanded global dataset for 17 plant traits, that these two main categories apply to all plants studied worldwide.

In the size category, plants balance height, leaf size, and seed size, among other characteristics. These traits are also influenced by the hydraulic components of water transport in plants. The economic category describes how quickly and efficiently the plant obtains energy and biomass through photosynthesis based on the length of its survival. This category is determined by measurable characteristics such as the structure and composition of leaves in terms of leaf area, as well as their elemental composition (nitrogen, phosphorus and carbon). The team showed that the life strategies of plant species collected around the world in the TRY database are well explained by these two main categories.

Characteristics of more than 20,000 species analyzed

Plant traits are influenced by external factors such as climate, soil conditions, and human intervention. It has not yet been possible to determine which factors are decisive at the global level. To answer this question, the research team, led by Julia Joswig from the University of Zurich and the Max Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry in Jena, analyzed the characteristics of more than 20,000 species. Information on the climate and soil conditions at the location of each plant was included in the analysis.

“Our study clearly demonstrates that the traits of plants around the world can be explained by the joint effects of climate and soil,” Joswig said, adding: “This suggests that aspects of climate change and soil erosion, which both result from land use change, for example, should be researched together.

Many of the relationships described here were already known from small-scale local studies. “But the fact that these processes can now be shown on a global scale and their quantified importance is an important step”, adds Professor Miguel Mahecha of the University of Leipzig. “Studies like this can guide models of the global earth system to represent the complex interplay of climate, soil and biodiversity, which is an important prerequisite for future predictions,” adds Mahecha.

As expected, the study shows how the height of plant species changes along latitudes, due to differences in climate. However, the economic traits of plants do not show this gradient. Likewise, soil quality is only partially affected by climate, so there is a latitude independent component in soil information. Joswig and his colleagues show that this soil information is also relevant for economic characteristics. Besides climate, factors of soil formation include organisms living in the soil, geology and topography, and of course the weather. Global change affects climate, organisms and, to some extent, topography. Therefore, the study suggests that global risks to plant life should be explored, particularly in relation to climate change and soil erosion.


Soil formation of the Galapagos Islands


More information:

Julia Joswig, Climatic and Soil Factors Explain the Two-Dimensional Spectrum of Global Variation in Plant Traits, Ecology and evolution of nature (2021). DOI: 10.1038 / s41559-021-01616-8. www.nature.com/articles/s41559-021-01616-8

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University of Zurich


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Climate and soil determine the distribution of plant traits (2021, 23 December)
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