We’re happy to welcome Adam Martin, (University of Toronto at Scarborough, Canada) to the board. Adam is a forest- and agro- ecologist interested in plant ecophysiology, plant functional traits, forest carbon dynamics, and ecosystem functioning. He works in both natural and managed terrestrial ecosystems in temperate and tropical regions.

Find out more about Adam, his research and his approach to ecology here.


Adam Martin sqForester + ecologist = forest ecologist

I first became interested in concepts in functional ecology about 10 years ago, during my PhD with Sean Thomas at the University of Toronto. I was based in the Faculty of Forestry, so I consistently took in a healthy dose of serious forestry talk: skid trails, cut blocks, chainsaws, and most of all wood. These discussions with foresters and forest ecologists – some serious interdisciplinary stuff – got me thinking a lot about the ecological aspects of wood functional traits. About the same time, a major paper on wood traits came out by Jerome Chave and colleagues (Chave et al. 2009) which was highly influential for my research.

What was interesting to me, is that we didn’t know much about how wood chemical traits influence plant responses to the environment; as functional ecologists would say, we didn’t know much about the “adaptive significance” of wood chemical traits. Some of my first PhD work – in collaboration with Helene Muller-Landau at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute – focused on measuring wood carbon concentrations across tropical tree species. While these studies (Martin & Thomas 2011; Martin, Thomas & Zhao 2013) proved important for estimating global forest carbon stocks, they really didn’t do much in terms of better understanding the adaptive significance of wood chemical traits.

My research is still chipping away at this question. Perhaps most notably, we’ve been curating a database on wood carbon concentration data (Thomas & Martin 2012): seems all functional ecologists these days need a database to call their own. These efforts have been motivated by the importance of these data for global forest carbon accounting, but in recent research we’ve made some discoveries on the adaptive significance of wood carbon concentrations.

Ecologist + crop traits = agroecologist

Since my PhD, I’ve switched gears a bit into agroecology, working closely with Marney Isaac at the University of Toronto Scarborough. Similar to my wood trait research, we became interested in applying principles of trait-based ecology to sustainable agriculture, but found there were few applications in the literature. This research has taken a number of different approaches, but is best summarized by our review article (Martin & Isaac 2015) and edited Special Feature (Martin & Isaac 2018) in the Journal of Applied Ecology. Generally, we’ve been thinking a fair bit about how trait-based ecology can be applied to the agroecological system science and management.

The theme we’ve arguably been thinking about the most is how crops compare to “wild plant” species, in terms of their functional biology. This line of research was really motivated by great work led by Rubén Milla (Milla et al. 2014) and Cyrille Violle (Roucou et al. 2018), whose research stands up as the best in the business. We’ve taken a slightly different approach, but have generally been comparing crops to wild plants along the Leaf Economics Spectrum.

Martin - 00362 - Graphical AbstractThis has led to some interesting things. For example, our paper in Functional Ecology showed that coffee displays rather odd patterns of leaf trait relationships, which are likely a result of caffeine in leaves (Martin et al. 2017). We’ve also had some papers showing that some of the world’s most common crops – like soy, wheat, and maize –show very extreme (if not the most extreme) leaf trait values among plants globally, likely owing to artificial selection (Hayes et al. 2018; Martin et al. 2018).

Ongoing work in this field is starting to explore crops in relation to wild plants in terms of their seed traits, and we’ve also been interested in compiling a global database on crop functional traits. While the trait database approach has worked for a few select species, there is currently a crop trait database initiative led by Cyrille Violle that is doing it a lot better than I am. 

Forest ecology + agroecology = Functional Ecology

At the moment, I find myself gravitating towards mechanistic functional trait research. For my money, research from Ülo Niinemets is the gold standard: it doesn’t shy away from hard-core plant physiology themes, while still maintaining wider application to global change science. His work on the physiological basis of shade tolerance, which has appeared in part in Functional Ecology (Portsmuth & Niinemets 2007), also really speaks to my inner forester. Also, I don’t think you can be a functional ecologist without having read the seminal paper of Sandra Lavorel and Eric Garnier in Functional Ecology (Lavorel & Garnier 2002).

More recently, two of my personal favourite papers over the past few years have also been published in Functional Ecology, one by Carlos Carmona and colleagues (Carmona et al. 2015) and the other by Catherine Husholf and Nathan Swenson (Hulshof & Swenson 2010). In the trait-based agroecology world, within-species variation in functional traits is a pretty crucial element of our research. For me, these two papers are excellent examples of tackling questions around intraspecific variation sampling strategies, data analysis, and everything in between, in very practical and simple conceptual terms.




Carmona, C.P., Rota, C., Azcarate, F.M. & Peco, B. (2015) More for less: sampling strategies of plant functional traits across local environmental gradients. Functional Ecology, 29, 579-588.

Chave, J., Coomes, D., Jansen, S., Lewis, S.L., Swenson, N.G. & Zanne, A.E. (2009) Towards a worldwide wood economics spectrum. Ecology Letters, 12, 351-366.

Hayes, F.J., Buchanan, S.W., Coleman, B., Gordon, A.M., Reich, P.B., Thevathasan, N.V., Wright, I.J. & Martin, A.R. (2018) Intraspecific variation in soy across the leaf economics spectrum. Annals of Botany, mcy147.

Hulshof, C.M. & Swenson, N.G. (2010) Variation in leaf functional trait values within and across individuals and species: an example from a Costa Rican dry forest. Functional Ecology, 24, 217-223.

Lavorel, S. & Garnier, E. (2002) Predicting changes in community composition and ecosystem functioning from plant traits: revisiting the Holy Grail. Functional Ecology, 16, 545-556.

Martin, A.R., Hale, C.E., Cerabolini, B.E.L., Cornelissen, J.H.C., Craine, J., Gough, W.A., Kattge, J. & Tirona, C.K. (2018) Inter- and intraspecific variation in leaf economics traits in wheat and maize. Aob Plants, 10, ply006.

Martin, A.R. & Isaac, M.E. (2015) Plant functional traits in agroecosystems: a blueprint for research. Journal of Applied Ecology, 52, 1425-1435.

Martin, A.R. & Isaac, M.E. (2018) Functional traits in agroecology: advancing description and prediction in agroecosystems. Journal of Applied Ecology, 55, 5-11.

Martin, A.R., Rapidel, B., Roupsard, O., Van den Meersche, K., de M. Virginio Filho, E., Mirna Barrios, M. & Isaac, M.E. (2017) Intraspecific trait variation across multiple scales: the Leaf Economics Spectrum in coffee. Functional Ecology, 31, 604–612.

Martin, A.R. & Thomas, S.C. (2011) A reassessment of carbon content in tropical trees. Plos One, 6.

Martin, A.R., Thomas, S.C. & Zhao, Y. (2013) Size-dependent changes in wood chemical traits: a comparison of neotropical saplings and large trees. Aob Plants, 5, plt039.

Milla, R., Morente-Lopez, J., Alonso-Rodrigo, J.M., Martin-Robles, N. & Chapin, F.S. (2014) Shifts and disruptions in resource-use trait syndromes during the evolution of herbaceous crops. Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 281.

Portsmuth, A. & Niinemets, U. (2007) Structural and physiological plasticity in response to light and nutrients in five temperate deciduous woody species of contrasting shade tolerance. Functional Ecology, 21, 61-77.

Roucou, A., Violle, C., Fort, F., Roumet, P., Ecarnot, M. & Vile, D. (2018) Shifts in plant functional strategies over the course of wheat domestication. Journal of Applied Ecology, 55, 25-37.

Thomas, S.C. & Martin, A.R. (2012) Carbon content of tree tissues: a synthesis. Forests, 3, 332-352.