Trait co-variation: structural and functional relationships in plant ecology at the 39th New Phytologist Symposium.

At the end of June, about 125 ecologists from all over the world got together at the University of Exeter Streatham Campus for a 3-day symposium on trait-based ecology, organized by the New Phytologist Trust.

by Dr Bjorn Robroek, University of Southampton bjorn



I always like small symposia. They stimulate you to engage with other delegates and give you the incredible feeling of being part of a community of like-minded people. I must admit, being a plant community ecologist who just embarked on the ‘trait-based ecology’ train, I was a bit worried that my knowledge was insufficient to fully appreciate this symposium. I was proven wrong. The organizers had put together a well balanced program with presentations from established well-known academics to early career researchers and PhD-students. All in a very friendly setting, with sufficient time to meet people and for discussion. And most importantly, I learned that the field of trait-based ecology is very broad and spans the entire width from species autecology to Earth System Modelling.


The stage was set by Prof. Peter Reich with a very inspiring talk on why study traits, the history behind this, and the most important breakthroughs in trait-based ecological research. Belinda Medlyn proceeded with a talk on how to upscale leaf trait to ecosystem processes. She joked that it was highly interesting for a modeller like her to be on the first day of the programme (second speaker even!) of such an important symposium. I think it even more reflects the versatile nature of the field, which brings field ecologist and modellers to the same table.

Later during the first day, Luke McCormack discussed the need to understand, and perhaps even update, our concepts of, root traits, and introduced the Fine-Root Ecology database, FRED (, on which he later gave a lunch workshop). Jens Kattge presented 10 years of TRY, the largest participatory global trait data-base which is currently in its 4th version. After lunch, we were divided into four smaller groups which discussed different challenges in trait research. The results of this discussion were brought back to the large conference room, and briefly discussed. As with every good conference, we ended the day with a poster session (incl. nibbles and drinks), followed by an official dinner with a speech from Richard Norby.


The second day was very unusual as the morning and evening talk sessions were ‘interrupted’ by a field trip to Dartmoor National Park. The morning session was kicked-off by none other then Sandra Díaz who talked about the global trait space, which she compared the shape of with a galactic plane. One of her figures (Fig. 2 in her 2016 Nature paper) featured in at least 50% of the presentations of this symposium. Pretty important stuff, I’d say! Colin Prentice kept it with the ‘boring stuff’, (his own words). I think Prof. Prentice was a bit to modest there, as his presentation nicely illustrated how good field measurements can lead to sensible modelling.

After the morning session, a one-and-a-half-hour drive brought us to Dartmoor National Park where we had some down-time (and our packed lunch). We were divided into smaller groups for a guided tour in the National Park. In a two hour walk, our guide told us about the glacial history of Dartmoor, post-glacial stone extractions, and the grazing regime. Whilst it was rather chilly, we at least kept dry until we went for cream tea in a nearby village. Some of us wondered off to the souvenir shops which lined one road of the little village.

Back in Exeter, Michael Dietze talked about how Bayesian modelling approaches can help by putting a halt on increasing model complexity, and Isla Myers-Smith presented her group’s Tundra work, a talk about the environmental limits of trait space. The second evening was again devoted to a very relaxed poster session, followed by a much more informal dinner (compared to the previous day).

After a good night’s sleep, day 3 kicked-off with Ian Wright, who talked about trade-off and co-variation, challenging theory on the leaf economic spectrum– can we come up with simple rules that capture trade-trade offs? Isabelle Austin presented her collaborative research on intraspecific trait variability. By working with molecular ecologists, her study learned that assumptions of individual plants being one species do not necessarily hold. These talks were followed after coffee with two talks on root traits (Etienne Laliberté and Monique Weemstra) and a few talks on using traits in global vegetation models (Peter van Bodegom, Anna Harper, Simon Scheiter). The whole symposium was closed with a talk by Peter Thornton, who talked about incorporating plant traits, and functionality in general, to Earth system models.


After three intensive days, we all went home satisfied. Not without taking a group picture though! This was the first time I had attended a very specialized symposium outside my comfort zone. And it was great; I learned a great deal from this conference and I met many motivated and collaborative people.


More information about the symposium, including the programme can be found here.


Bjorn Robroek is the blog editor for Functional Ecologists.

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