Announcing the first OpenTraits workshop – 4-5 August, 2018, New Orleans

Spanning animal and plant biology – the critical need for an Open Traits initiative across biology

Announcing the first OpenTraits workshop

August 4-5, 2018, prior to the Ecological Society of America annual meetings, New Orleans, Louisiana, USA are launching their inaugural  OpenTraits workshop ( this summer. This workshop is part of a coordinated, international series of meetings focused on facilitating open collaboration and standardization in the collection and sharing of trait data. Find out more about their mission and this meeting here.

Why Traits?

Adaptations for flight in animals and plants can be used to index dispersal capacity across species
Adaptations for flight in animals and plants can be used to index dispersal capacity across species

Functional traits have rapidly become an integral part of biodiversity research. Their popularity as a tool for indexing biological variation lies in the fact that they can describe variation in strategy amongst species, not just differences in their diversity based on taxonomic identity and evolutionary relationships. Trait-based approaches allow comparisons (of patterns, trends, global change impacts etc.) across regions and systems that have few taxa in common. Trait-based approaches can therefore provide greater predictive capacities, because many different lineages share the same ‘solutions’ to common environmental challenges.

For instance, a wide range of taxa exploit aerodynamics (e.g., birds, mammals, and plants via wind-dispersed seeds and pollen/spores) to move around the landscape using innovative adaptations for flight (e.g., wings, samaras, air sacs). These traits can be measured and used to answer a wide variety of evolutionary and ecological questions. In particular, traits can be used to predict the response of species to global change, building a stronger capacity to protect species through pre-emptive management.  Furthermore, the diversity and composition of traits in ecosystems determine their functionality, productivity, and resilience to change.

But despite widespread interest, we still have incomplete knowledge of how traits vary within and across species, locations and time and we still lack a common trait standard to link and share trait data within and across disparate organisms (plants, insects, birds, mammals etc.).

Why OpenTraits?

opentraits Current efforts to catalogue trait data still grapple with multiple issues. Even within relatively well-sampled taxa (e.g. mammals), many ecologically important traits are unknown, and some species lack any trait information at all. Further, unlike geographic data or genetic data, trait data are messy. They are collected across a vast variety of different taxa, approaches, methods, and scales. Large trait databases and datasets have made progress on these issue by aggregating traits from numerous sources and across differing taxonomic and spatial scales. However, even these datasets are notably deficient for many traits/species.

As trait-based datasets grow and change and new initiatives begin it will be increasingly important to adopt standards for data exchange which complement and align existing biodiversity repositories (e.g., GBIF, BIEN, Encyclopedia of Life). While there are many initiatives to catalogue the diversity of life, it is increasingly a focus to include the traits of not only species but also individuals. There is much work to be done in networking together the varied approaches to trait data collation, management and dissemination across taxa and the globe, but the era of open science makes this an exciting time point to push for greater transparency and coordination across scales, from enabling individual researchers to make compatible trait datasets to an exchangeable standard to synthesising trait observations with established bioinformatics platforms.

The goal of the Open Traits community is to increase our global knowledge of the traits of organisms by:

  • Developing shared data standards;
  • Developing open-source tools and techniques for gathering, cleaning, curating, and analyzing trait data;
  • Developing methods for the prioritization of trait sampling;
  • Increasing collaboration among trait researchers; and
  • Organizing trait sampling efforts for priority regions, taxa and traits.


Why an OpenTraits meeting?

Efforts to integrate and catalogue trait diversity at a global scale are hampered by:

(1) Lack of access to open trait data;
(2) Lack of a common data/metadata standard;
(3) Lack of open-source tools and databases;
(4) Incomplete sampling within and among taxa;
(5) Incomplete metadata and scientific context of trait collection; and
(6) Lack of coordinated efforts within and among working groups.

This workshop is part of a coordinated, international series of meetings focused on facilitating open collaboration and standardization in the collection of trait data. While the primary aim of this workshop will focus on open science and metadata standards, we will also discuss the outcomes of previous workshops in this series as well as future directions for these efforts. For more information on the meeting, go to

Interested in being a part of

Taxonomic Working Groups are looking to form expert ‘trait nodes’ to help direct international efforts.  These working groups will each focus on a specific taxon (e.g. plants, birds, fish, amphibians, algae, insects etc.).

Methodological/Technical Working Groups are also looking to form working groups focused on methodological issues facing the field.  For instance, database infrastructure, metadata standards, and tools for sampling prioritization or trait curation.

Are you interested in attending the meeting?

Find out more at .   If you are interested in attending the meeting please send an email by June 15th to:

Space at the venue may be limited and we are interested in ensuring a diversity of skills, taxonomic interests and backgrounds among participants. We ask those interested in attending to send us a brief email (a numbered list or bullet points is great) describing:
1) The types of traits you study
2) The types of questions you’re interested in
3) The group(s) of organisms you work with
4) Any computational skills that might be relevant

Steering and Technical Teams of

Rachael Gallagher (Macquarie University, Australia)
Brian Maitner (University of Arizona, USA)
Daniel Falster (University of New South Wales, Australia)
Xiao Feng (University of Arizona, USA)
Brad Boyle (University of Arizona, USA)
Scott Chamberlain (rOpenSci, USA)
Wendy Foden (University of Stellenbosch, South Africa)
Aud Helen Halbritter Rechsteiner (University of Bergen, Norway)
Joshua Madin (University of Hawaii, USA)
Jeanine McGann (University of Arizona, USA)
Daniel S. Park (University of Arizona, USA)
Florian Schneider (Darmstadt, Germany)
Alexander Shenkin (Oxford University, UK)
Cyrille Violle (CNRS, France)
Yadvinder Malhi (Oxford University, UK)
Vigdis Vandvik (University of Bergen, Norway)
Brian J Enquist (Santa Fe Institute, University of Arizona, USA

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