Friday, August 26, 2016

Studying plant traits in China

I recently had the incredible opportunity to travel to China and study plants at the Alpine Ecosystem Observation and Experiment Station of Mt. Gongga. I was studying with a group of amazing students from around the world, including China, Norway, Chile, France, South Africa, and the US. Our goals were to 1) learn about the importance and practice of studying plant traits, 2) measure the traits of leaves along an elevational gradient in order to answer our own research questions, and 3) collaborate with fellow plant lovers.

Alpine Ecosystem Observation and Experiment Station of Mt. Gongga
Scientists have sought answers to many plant ecology questions through the identification and counting of different plant species in an area (i.e., species richness). While this gives us some information about the plant community, there is a wealth of additional information to be gained by studying the traits of the species.

Gentiana trichotoma
Anaphalis nepalensis

Traits are measurable characteristics of a plant (e.g., plant size, flower size, leaf area, photosynthetic rate, tissue isotopes). By examining plant traits, we can better understand the ecological strategies plants are using to improve their fitness. For example, if a plant is in a stressful environment, like a desert, it may have a small leaf area and be favoring resource conservation. A plant growing in a less stressful environment, like a jungle, may have a larger leaf area and be favoring resource acquisition.

Plant trait data also allow us to better predict how plants interact with the environment. For example, the variance of plant traits in different climate conditions can lead to better predictions of how communities will respond to climate change. Some species may go extinct, while others may alter their traits to adapt to new conditions.

Another benefit of studying plant traits is that it enables us to more easily compare taxonomically diverse ecosystems. Around the world, scientists are measuring plant traits and developing valuable datasets.

In China, we contributed to the trait dataset by carefully collecting, labeling, weighing, scanning (for leaf area), and measuring the thickness of nearly 4,000 leaves! We collected leaves at sites ranging from 3,000 to 4,100 meters in elevation and in experimental treatments plots. The sites were incredibly beautiful with foggy mountains, wispy fir trees, and trickling streams. At the highest alpine site, the green was broken by vibrant blue Gentiana trichotoma and colorful Tibetan flags.

It was such a joy to have this experience, and I am so grateful to have learned some of the fascinating plants of China and met some truly incredible scientists.

Fog surrounding the distant mountains at our highest alpine site (4,100m)
Polygonum runcinatum
Codonopsis nervosa
Rhododendron sp.
Fragaria nilgherrensis growing alongside the famous red rocks