In praise of the phenotype: Stock-taking and perspectives in plant functional trait ecology

The plant functional trait diversity research programme has expanded dramatically in the past two decades, as a result of the combination of a long-standing interest in fundamental syndromes of adaptive specialization behind the vast variety of form and function observed in nature on the one hand, and the pressing need to inform biodiversity policy in the face of rapid environmental change, on the other. Its first stages, focused on interspecific variability of traits assumed essential for plant growth, survival and reproduction, led to an unprecedented degree of collaboration in tools and communal data, and resulted in important stylized facts. From there, different paths branched out towards intraspecific variability, genomics, demography, biogeography, cascading into other trophic levels, and social perception and values.

The paths have achieved different degrees of progress, with some opening up whole new fields of inquiry and some others at risk of becoming blind alleys. A common denominator, however, is the need to recover the idea of integrated phenotype, as a keystone concept in the interface between functional ecology, evolutionary biology and ecosystem science.

Sandra Díaz is a Senior Principal Investigator of the Argentine National Research Council, a Professor of Ecology at Córdoba National University (Argentina), and a Visiting Professor at the School of Geography and the Environment, Oxford University (United Kingdom). She is interested in plant functional traits and syndromes, their effects on ecosystem properties, their contributions to human quality of life, and their interactions with global change drivers.

She constructed the first global quantitative picture of essential functional diversity of vascular plants –the global spectrum of plant form and function. She has advanced theory and practical implementation of the concept of functional diversity and its effects on ecosystem properties and benefits to people. She combines her ecology studies with interdisciplinary work on how different societies value and reconfigure nature, having spearheaded transformative conceptual frameworks favouring pluralistic collaborations in environmental knowledge and action, including the influential notion of nature’s contributions to people. She co-founded the Global Communal Plant Trait Initiative TRY.

She co-chaired the Global Assessment of the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services and played a major role in the expert scientific advice to the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework. She is a Foreign Fellow of the British Royal Society, a member of the American Philosophical Society and a member of the Academies of Sciences of Argentina, USA, France, Norway, Latin America and the Developing World, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She has received several international scientific awards, including the Margalef Prize in Ecology (2017), the BBVA Frontiers of Knowledge in Ecology and Conservation Award (2021), and the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh Medal (2022).

The Leverhulme Centre for Nature Recovery and Biodiversity Network are interested in promoting a wide variety of views and opinions on nature recovery from researchers and practitioners.

The views, opinions and positions expressed within this lecture are those of the author alone, they do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the Leverhulme Centre for Nature Recovery/Biodiversity Network, or its researchers.