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How does climate affect plant traits?

Irena Šímová from the Department of Ecology of the Faculty of Science, Charles University, is one of two main authors of a study, in which scientists from a total of 23 workplaces across Europe and America participated. Its main objective was to find out what traits of woody and herbaceous plants on the American continent are affected by the climate. For the analysis, scientists used data in the BIEN and TRY databases. They contain extensive datasets on occurrences of plant species and plant traits. Woody plants have revealed a clear influence of the climate on individual traits. These two growth forms of plants - trees and herbs - seem to have different life strategies.

The result of the work is, among other things, a map of the averages and the variability of the six plant species (maximum height, leaf area to leaf weight (SLA), seed mass, wood density, nitrogen and phosphorus content in leaves). Scientists then identified environmental factors that affect these traits. They found that in a warmer environment the plants are higher, they have larger seeds and leaves. Leaves are then larger in proportion to their weight. However, in case of herbs, the results were less obvious. An explanation may be that, for example, herbs have a greater number of life strategies than trees. They tend, more than trees, to settle smaller and more specialized niche environments. Herbs and trees were the most different in relation to the temperature differences during the season. The way to cope with unfavorable periods is probably a key factor responsible for the differences in the values of traits between these two growth forms.

What specific environmental conditions affect the values of plant traits?

It was mainly the average annual temperature, temperature seasonality and solar radiation, on the contrary, the seasonality of precipitation had the least impact.


  • seed mass increases with increasing temperatures and the amount of precipitation
  • wood density is higher at higher temperatures
  • SLA decreases with decreasing temperatures and rainfall, but is higher at higher temperature seasonality
Plants in Rocky Mountain. Foto: Benjamin Blonder.

The last result may mean that a lower SLA in a colder environment serves to regulate the leaf temperature. Scientists first noticed that the content of nitrogen in tree leaves is correlated with temperature and sunlight. The results of this study are important for the emerging field of functional biogeography (a functional trait is any characteristic trait of an organism that affects its demography) and for future studies predicting the functional response of ecosystems to climate change. Plant woodiness must be taken into account in large-scale studies in order to adequately assess the importance of climate to plant traits. The results of this study explain the weak signals in previous studies, in which the trees and herbs were conceived as one group.

Other research steps in this field will most likely aim at combining plant trait maps with maps of ecological processes (e.g. remote sensing productivity data).

Šímová, I., Violle, C., Svenning, J.-C., Kattge, J., Engemann, K., Sandel, B., Peet, R. K., Wiser, S. K., Blonder, B., McGill, B. J., Boyle, B., Morueta-Holme, N., Kraft, N. J. B., van Bodegom, P. M., Gutiérrez, A. G., Bahn, M., Ozinga, W. A., Tószögyová, A., Enquist, B. J. (2018). Spatial patterns and climate relationships of major plant traits in the New World differ between woody and herbaceous species. Journal of Biogeography 2018: 1–22.  

Author of the text (c) Radka ZELENÁ
Popular Science editor


Published: May 09, 2019 11:45 AM

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