Functional trait differences and the mechanisms structuring diverse communities

OCTF seminar followed by drinks – all welcome

A long-term research goal for ecologists is to understand the mechanisms shaping local communities and the consequences for ecosystem-level processes. It also represents a major challenge as global change rapidly alters abiotic gradients and biotic interactions. In this context, there are three major questions that motivate Claire’s research: (1) what mechanisms shape communities in species-rich systems? (2) do these mechanisms act similarly across environments and regions? (3) how will diverse communities respond to global change? In order to address these mechanistic questions in highly diverse tropical forests, where we don’t know much about the biology of the majority of species, she combines approaches from community ecology, functional ecology and phylogenetics. Functional traits reflect key physiological features and life history tradeoffs, while phylogenetic relationships can provide an additional estimate of overall species similarity in the absence of other information. Combining trait and phylogenetic information allows for a powerful test of the mechanistic role of species differences in shaping local communities. In this seminar, Claire will present recent findings from studies that she conducted at different scales, from regional to local, using experiments and models, in order to evaluate the mechanisms shaping tropical forests and determine if these mechanisms act similarly across environments and regions. Together these studies illustrate the need to combine different approaches for improving our understanding of the mechanisms shaping communities and ecosystems. Experimental work is instrumental in providing detailed tests of how different mechanisms of community assembly shape species distribution and dynamics, but it remains difficult to conduct such detailed studies for many species at broad spatial scales. If traits can provide good proxies for species response to different mechanisms, we can leverage that information in models and simulations to better predict large scale responses of communities. To gain a stronger predictive ability of the response of these diverse communities to global change across scales, it will be critical to combine experimental and quantitative approaches.

Dr. Claire Fortunel is a plant ecologist interested in the ecological and evolutionary mechanisms shaping community structure and dynamics, and the consequences for ecosystem processes. In order to address these mechanistic questions, she combines approaches from community ecology, functional ecology and phylogenetics. Her research uses a combination of field-based observational studies, experimental manipulations, and statistical modelling. She primarily focuses on land plants, in particular in temperate and tropical systems, though her approach is broadly applicable to other trophic levels and systems.