Understanding plant functional diversity and its benefits to society

The diversity of plants on Earth is decreasing fast as a consequence of accelerating human pressure. At the same time, during the past few years scientists have documented numerous ways in which plant life, in its different variations, underpins a number of important ecosystem processes that provide benefits to society, such climate regulation, sustained soil fertility, food security and many cultural values. Within this context, I am trying to understand how plants with different functional characteristics respond to environmental change, and how this in turn affects ecosystems and the benefits that societies derive from them.

Dealing with every plant species separately is neither scientifically satisfying nor logistically possible, so our main interest is to find out whether the overwhelming variety of plants can be described in terms of a few functional characteristics or traits. Examples of such traits are plant stature, leaf size, texture and chemical composition, or seed size and shape. If we manage to reduce some of this complexity into a manageable number of general patterns, there will be a more solid mechanistic base to understand how the combinations of plants found in different ecosystems affect their functioning and their benefits to society.

Malhi Diaz photo 2 JPG

Professor Sandra Diaz and Professor Yadvinder Malhi.

One of our main goals is to produce a synthesis of plant functional trait variation at the global scale, based on the largest database available to date. This has been possible thanks to TRY, a global communal repository of plant trait data that contains information for tens of thousands of species around the world (www.try-db.org). We are also trying to understand the links between plant traits, ecosystems, and benefits to different sectors of society. In this sense, the opportunity of being a Visiting Professor at the University of Oxford is unique. My academic host, Prof Yadvinder Malhi at the School of Geography and the Environment, leads a group that conducts world-leading research into ecosystem processes, with a particular focus in tropical forests, and with ongoing field research sites in Amazonia, Africa and Malaysia. Because my expertise is strong in plant functional traits and their ecological and social significance, there is room for excellent complementarity and intellectual synergy. My expectation is that this visit will result not only in mutual learning, but also in novel contributions to the field, in terms of theoretical insights into the links between biodiversity, ecosystems and societal needs. I am optimistic that it will initiate novel integrated research programmes.

Professor Sandra Diaz visiting Professor Yadvinder Malhi
University of Oxford

Yadvinder was awarded a Visiting Professorship grant in 2011.