CEED member Roberto Salguero-Gómez manages a plant database called COMPADRE that brings together the life histories of over a thousand plant species. In a sense, it’s a window on the ‘tree of life’. Now Salguero-Gómez and colleagues have demonstrated the value of this window by using COMPADRE to explain the worldwide variation in plant-life histories. Amazingly, most of this variation can be explained by just two variables: how fast the plant grows and its reproductive strategy.
Salguero-Gómez is an evolutionary biologist and population ecologist. His work examines the drivers of demographic variation in order to determine which attributes may predict the risk of local extinction of endangered species and the potential for invasion of alien species. One of the tools he has developed to undertake this research has been the construction of a massive plant demographic database called the COMPADRE Plant Matrix Database (the name of which is derived from Comparative Plant Matrix Database).
“The database includes demographic records of survival, growth and reproduction standardised into population matrix models,” says Salguero-Gómez. “It’s a rich data resource for anyone studying plants, and will allow researchers to address important questions in the fields of conservation biology, ecology and evolution that to date have remained unanswered because the necessary data were not available in a single, open-access repository.”
The identification of patterns and underlying mechanisms governing the wide array of life history strategies across the tree of life is one example of this. Understanding these patterns is of vital importance to our prediction of population persistence, extinction and diversification.
“Plants exhibit a wide range of patterns of longevity, growth, and reproduction, but the general determinants of this enormous variation in life history are poorly understood,” explains Salguero-Gómez. “We have used demographic data from COMPADRE for 418 plant species from all four corners of the globe to examine how growth form, habitat and phylogenetic relationships structure plant life histories.”
The plant species being considered by the researchers covers most of the spectrum of plant life on the planet, from tiny annual herbs to giant trees that live for many centuries, even millenia. The aim of the research is to develop a framework to predict population performance.
“We found that life history strategies of these 418 plant species – very different species from all over the world – can be explained by an axis representing the ‘pace of life’ and another representing their wide range of reproductive strategies,” says Salguero-Gómez. “Our framework predicts responses to perturbations and long-term population performance, thus showing great promise as a predictive tool for understanding plant population responses to environmental change.”
Understanding how life history strategies are structured is fundamental to our understanding of the evolution, abundance and distribution of species. These findings suggest that fast-slow growth strategies and reproduction strategies are a general organising principle in the plant kingdom. The findings have similarities with how life history strategies are structured in mammals, birds and reptiles suggesting they are central for how life is organised on planet Earth in general.
And this is just an early research output of the COMPADRE project, suggesting that there are many more important basic findings (fruits) to be harvested from a richer understanding of the tree of (plant) life.
Reference: Salguero-Gómez R , OR Jones, E Jongejans, SP Blomberg, D Hodgson, C Mbeau-Ache, PA Zuidema, H de Kroon & YM Buckley (2015). Fast-slow continuum and reproductive strategies structure plant life history variation worldwide. PNAS
Reported on ABC PM Show