Biodiversity Graduate Student Research Enhancement Grant
Department of Botany
Graduate Advisor: Daniel Laughlin
This research aims to fill a key knowledge gap in the promise of trait-based ecology by empirically linking population fitness in different environments to plant functional traits. Although functional traits have been shown to differ across environmental gradients, strong empirical links between traits and vital rates are lacking. A link between these will be necessary if we hope to use traits to understand and predict the response of plant communities under climate change. Moreover, traits conferring fitness in different environments may further differ depending on biotic interactions with the neighbor community. In my M.S. research I showed that the more dissimilar the traits of a focal species are from the traits of the community the better that species did under drought stress. This current research will elucidate how both trait by environment and trait by neighbor interactions effect demographic performance. The differential performance of cooccurring species directly influences realized community assembly and biodiversity.
It is well-supported that fitness varies along environmental gradients. Different species are successful in different environments because they have characteristics that make them suitable for their environment and less suitable for others. Our understanding and ability to predict community assembly through
environmental filtering is enhanced by considering how particular plant traits, instead of whole species, preform across environments. These plant functional traits are broadly defined as morpho-, physio-, phenological characteristics and have been posed as a holy grail for plant community ecology. A
strong link between traits and demographic performance under different conditions would allow us to make strong predictions about the future of grasslands under climate change for example. Despite the strong theoretical connection between traits and fitness in different environments, empirical tests for the net effects of traits on fitness are still lacking.
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