In our latest Insight, Bingwei Zhang of Beijing Normal University at Zhuhai talks about the importance of trait plasticity in regulating species performance under environmental change, for his latest paper Species responses to changing precipitation depends on trait plasticity rather than trait means and intraspecific variation’.

About the paper

The paper originally assessed the influence of trait plasticity (variation of plant functional traits induced by environmental change) on the species response to changing precipitation, along with intraspecific trait variation (variation of traits induced by both environmental change and genotypic change) and mean trait value, based on a five-year field precipitation manipulation experiment.

The field precipitation manipulation experiment (photo by Bingwei Zhang)
The field precipitation manipulation experiment (photo by Bingwei Zhang)

This work is the continuation of my Ph.D. research, in which I have found different species in the same community responded differently to the manipulated changing precipitation. I am very curious what determines some species are more responsive to precipitation than other species. Although previous studies mostly used the mean trait values to capture species differences and explain species responses to environmental change, several recent studies suggest that traits could also vary within species and plastically respond to environmental change. The variation and plasticity could also greatly influence species performance, but little is currently known.

This work confirmed mean root traits were strong predictors for the species response to precipitation in term of biomass and individual weight, but not for the number of individuals. For aboveground traits, trait plasticity was the strongest predictor of species responses compared to mean trait values and intraspecific trait variation, via both changes in individual number and individual weight, and change in individuals’ number was more important. These results indicate that trait plasticity is a key driver rather than the magnitude of the traits for determining species responses to changing precipitation, which largely improves our understanding and application of trait-based approach in global change ecology.

About the research

Overview of the studied grassland (photo by Bingwei Zhang)
Overview of the studied grassland (photo by Bingwei Zhang)

This research is important because trait plasticity is not only a strategy for plants to cope with environmental change, but also largely affect species response to environmental change. However, the role of plasticity is largely ignored in previous studies due to the difficult to sample large trait data to calculate the plasticity. Recent studies suggest that remote sensing is a promising technique for field trait survey, which could thus help in the future to easily get this important trait plasticity information, and encourage the application of trait plasticity.

In general, I believe that people who work in global change ecology and community ecology are potentially interested in this research.

About The Author

Bingwei Zhang (photo by Minling Chen)
Bingwei Zhang (photo by Minling Chen)

I am now an associate professor in Beijing Normal University at Zhuhai, China, and am currently working on global change ecology, biodiversity, ecosystem functions and terrestrial ecosystem carbon cycling, based on field manipulation experiment and forest plots.

As an ecologist, the most exciting thing is that I can explore and enjoy the time in nature. I have hada wonderful time in the Inner Mongolia grassland for six-years during my Ph.D. research. The worst thing is that I could not take care of my family because sometime I have to stay in the field for long time. Despite this, I still like and enjoy my work in ecology research.

Read  Species responses to changing precipitation depends on trait plasticity rather than trait means and intraspecific variation’. here