Fernanda Barros: What can plant life history tell us?

Fernanda Barros, postdoc at University of Exeter, talks in this new post about her recent paper ‘Phytogeographic origin determines Tropical Montane Cloud Forest hydraulic trait composition’. She highlights the importance of functional traits for ecology, discusses the importance of drought tolerance in tropical mountain cloud forests and calls for more efforts to reduce inequality in science.

About the paper

Fernanda Barros

Our paper investigates traits of important plant groups in tropical mountain cloud forests (TMCF) that are threatened by climate change. These forests are usually restricted to the top of mountains and they count with frequent cloud immersion, which makes them very vulnerable to the predicted higher temperatures and reduction in cloud frequency because the species cannot escape to higher altitudes. In low cloud cover periods, the radiation levels can be very high, which creates a very contrasting condition of when clouds are present. These characteristics allow the coexistence of a unique flora, composed by groups from warm-adapted tropical to cool-adapted temperate origins. In our paper, we measured a series of hydraulic functional traits of 16 species and investigated whether they differ across groups (temperate, tropical evergreen and tropical deciduous) of different origin and how they change the community’s functional composition. Hydraulic traits tell us about plant water use and then they can give us some clue of how plants deal with less water availability. We found species from temperate origin, which are the dominant ones, are more drought vulnerable than tropical evergreen species. We believe the higher drought vulnerability found in the temperate group may explain why these species had their distribution restricted to wetter places during last glacial periods, marked by colder and drier climate. This suggests hydraulic functional traits might be useful to predict future dynamics of TMCF under climate change. A change in the species composition in these forests would drastically impact their characteristics and the way they function, becoming a completely different forest. 

A cloud event in the TMCF. Photo: Rafael S. Oliveira
A cloud event in the TMCF. Photo: Rafael S. Oliveira

There are some studies in cloud forest, but very little on functional traits, especially at the community level. So I believe we are building up on some of the knowledge in plant ecology and ecophysiology, and at the same time calling attention to these forests that are at higher risk of disappearing.  In southeaster Brazil, these forests occupy the highest parts of the Serra da Mantiqueira, which concentrates an infinity of springs and water outcrops that will form important rivers in the region. Indeed, these rivers supply one of the biggest and most populated regions in Brazil. This shows the relevance and the huge impact that changes in these forests could have on the whole water balance in the region.

In our paper we also combine plant functional ecology and biogeography, making the link between plant traits, their evolution history and distribution. This can be very important to look for future species distribution in a climate-changing world and what would be the consequences of that, as well as guide future conservation efforts.

Studied TMCF, on a clear day (no fog events). Photo: Rafael S. Oliveira
Studied TMCF, on a clear day (no fog events). Photo: Rafael S. Oliveira

About the research

The functional ecology field has been growing in the past decades, especially as an attempt to understand mechanistic traits that explain how species would respond to climate change. Thus, our research can be helpful to the functional ecology and vegetation modelling field that work in all types of ecosystems.

In my view the knowledge about mechanistic traits behind plant distribution and plants’ response to climate is still growing and it is kind of a puzzle, each time we add one part of it. However, this puzzle has no end, and only through many studies and combinations of many traits, we can have an idea about what the picture is in it. There is still a lot to investigate, especially when you look at the multi-functionality of some traits and how they interact with other traits and specific environments. I was always fascinated by the fact that different species have different strategies to deal with the same problem.  So, we need to look better at their life history evolution to understand their present features. Another important aspect that needs better investigation is whether different functional traits are conserved across phylogeny, so we create better vegetation response predictions when upscaling from species, community, to ecosystem functioning.

Fernanda Barros in a pathway she built to have access to the tree canopy.
Fernanda Barros in a pathway she built to have access to the tree canopy.

About the author

I started working with plant ecology during my undergrad, when I participated in a project that was investigating plant phenology in order to help the recovery of some mining areas. Since then, I have realised how big our challenge in trying to understand nature to help conserve it in a changing world is. The way we find species distributed in the globe, what makes them to be there, and how they function in that specific environment have always been one of my main interests in environmental science. When I started my PhD, I had the opportunity to work in cloud forests, which had this great contrasting environment; I thought it would be very interesting to see what different plants were doing there!

Now, I`m currently a postdoc researcher at the University of Exeter, working in tropical savannahs, specifically in Brazilian Cerrado, where we are exploring whether we can use functional traits understanding to improve restoration success. I moved my study from forests to savannahs but I kept similar scientific interests and conservation goals.

Caroline Signori-Muller and Fernanda Barros doing leaf water potential measurements before sunrise.

During my trajectory, I have been surrounded by amazing scientists: friends, colleagues, great professors and advisors, which have inspired my way through this career. I`m glad I was always part of a good-working environment, with lots of respect and good collaborative research groups, where one supports the other. It makes a big difference!  However, being a female scientist from a South American country has its challenges, especially when being a scientist does not have many incentives. In addition to the gender inequality we see in science, there are still a lot of inequalities in the way funds are distributed. This causes an unbalanced leadership in most of the fields in science, requiring efforts to change that. I believe we can build a more collaborative and inclusive way of doing science and I think people are talking more about that and I hope we will get to one day when everyone has equal opportunity.

Enjoyed the blog? Read the research!

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