New framework unlocks secret life of plants, with land management to benefit

December 21, 2015

Controlling invasive plant species and planting to withstand extreme events could be the big winners from a new international study led by University of Queensland (UQ) researchers.

The study has developed an accurate framework to explain Earth's great diversity of plant growth forms, functions, and their ecological roles.

Lead author Dr Roberto Salguero-Gomez of UQ's School of Biological Sciences said the framework showed great promise to predict plant population responses to environmental change.

"Australia spends $4 billion a year to eradicate invasive plant species," he said.

"This framework could give us a better idea of which plant species are likely to become invasive under different conditions, saving taxpayers a large amount of money.

"The framework also looks at the resilience of plant populations to events such as climate change, fires, floods and hurricanes which destroy plant populations.

"It can inform land managers to understand which species are likely to be more resilient to destructive forces, leading to better land recovery projects."

Dr Salguero-Gomez said identifying patterns in life-history strategies across the tree of life was essential to predicting population persistence, extinction, and diversification.

"Understanding how life-history strategies are structured is fundamental to our understanding of the evolution, abundance, and distribution of species," he said.

"Plants exhibit a wide range of patterns of longevity, growth, and reproduction, but the general determinants of this enormous variation in life history are poorly understood."

To study the drivers behind plant life-history variation, the scientists based in Australia, Germany, Denmark, the Netherlands, England and Ireland used an approach similar to that developed decades ago for vertebrates.

They developed a two dimensional plot model, with one axis representing the pace of life from fast to slow-growing, and another axis representing the wide range of reproductive strategies.

"We used a large database known as COMPADRE to explore the life-history strategies of 418 wild plant species globally - from herbs to giant trees using the model," he said.

Research tested whether the position of a species on these axes predicted two important population performance metrics: population growth rate and speed of recovery from disturbances.

"We showed that 55 per cent of the variation in plant life-history strategies is adequately characterised using these two independent axes," he said.

"Our findings remained consistent across major habitats and have similarities with how life- history strategies are structured in mammals, birds, and reptiles. The results of our global analysis also suggest a greater relative importance of the reproductive strategy axis in plants."

Dr Salguero-Gomez said mammals and birds had previously been plotted on only one axis - whether they lived fast and died young, or were slow growing and reproduced less frequently. However, other creatures in the animal kingdom such as insects, reptiles and amphibians were yet to be plotted, creating a rich avenue for future research.

"There's so much we don't know about these other animals groups, so we plan to examine this using a sister database known as COMADRE."

Dr Salguero-Gomez is an Australian Research Council Discovery Early Career Research Award fellow and his UQ colleagues on the study were Dr Simon Blomberg and Honorary UQ Professor Yvonne Buckley of Trinity College, Ireland.

The research is published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

It is supported by the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research, in Germany, the Australian Research Council and a Marie-Curie Career Integration grant.

University of Queensland

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