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Is temperature a better predictor of plant traits than precipitation?

A new study shows that plant characteristics are more strongly correlated with mean annual temperature than with mean annual precipitation.

Rainforest - tall tree
Do plants grow tall because it is wet or hot?

A multi-author study involving Kew scientists and led by Professor Angela Moles (University of New South Wales), asks the simple question ‘Which is the better predictor of plant traits: temperature or precipitation’. Published in the Journal of Vegetation Science, it is the first in an intended series of analyses of an unprecedented global dataset, including data for 21 plant traits from 447,961 species-site combinations worldwide.  

The study provides the first broad quantification of the relative importance of precipitation and temperature in shaping plant ecological strategies. The meta-analysis showed that mean annual temperature was more strongly correlated with 15 of the 21 plant traits (including plant height and seed mass, both positively) than was mean annual precipitation. Interestingly, the six instances where the opposite was true included both plant and leaf lifespan. Future work will focus, among other variables, on climate extremes, potential evapo-transpiration (PET) irradiance, soil properties, and their interactions.

Kew’s contribution to the dataset was seed trait data, disseminated on the web through the Seed Information Database (SID) and also shared through the ‘TRY’ consortium of ecological trait data. The work exemplifies the growing potential for Kew’s involvement in collaborative, large-scale analyses; and the value of freely sharing its scientific data.

References

Moles, A.T., Perkins, S.E., Laffan, S.W., Flores-Moreno, H., Awasthy, M., Tindall, M.L., Sack, L., Pitman, A., Kattge, J., Aarssen, L.W., Anand, M., Bahn, M., Blonder, B., Cavender-Bares, J., Cornelissen, J.H.C., Cornwell, W.K., Díaz, S., Dickie, J.B., Freschet, G.T., Griffiths, J.G., Gutierrez, A.G., Hemmings, F.A., Hickler, T., Hitchcock, T.D., Keighery, M., Kleyer, M., Kurokawa, H., Leishman, M.R., Liu, K., Niinemets, Ü., Onipchenko, V., Onoda, Y., Penuelas, J., Pillar, V.D., Reich, P.B., Shiodera, S., Siefert, A., Sosinski, E.E., Soudzilovskaia, N.A., Swaine, E.K., Swenson, N.G., van Bodegom, P.M., Warman, L., Weiher, E., Wright, I.J., Zhang, H., Zobel, M. & Bonser, S.P. (2014). Which is a better predictor of plant traits: temperature or precipitation? Journal of Vegetation Science (early view). Available online

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