Tree of life reveals insights on plant variation

fast slow contineuumCEED 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.

More info: Roberto Salguero-Gomez This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. and

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

Tracking seabirds for conservation

Macaroni penguin with tracking device by A ShefferSeabirds are arguably the most threatened group of birds on the planet and conservation scientists all around the planet are working to understand how we can better protect this group of animals. Many studies involve tracking the movements of these highly mobile birds using a suite of tracking technology (telemetry). CEED recently joined forces and BirdLife International to run a workshop on the use of tracking data to define marine protected areas (MPAs). The workshop formed part of the 2nd World Seabird Conference in Cape Town, South Africa held in October 2015.

Read more: Tracking seabirds for conservation

UBC honours CEED’s Director

HPP at UBC conferral credit Martin Dee UBCEach year the University of British Columbia (UBC) awards honorary degrees to individuals from around the world who have made substantial contributions to society.

This year, CEED’s Director and Professor of Mathematics and Professor of Ecology at The University of Queensland, Hugh Possingham, has been awarded a Doctor of Science, honoris causa, for his contribution to the development of sound nature conservation principles worldwide.

Read more: UBC honours CEED’s Director

Bushfire management in Victoria boosted by CEED science

Bushfire LaurenBrownThe Victorian Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning has just released a Strategic bushfire management plan for the Mallee and Murray Goulburn catchments and CEED research on fire history and biodiversity conservation has made an important contribution.

Victoria is one of the most fire-prone areas in the world. In past decades, bushfires have had devastating impacts on communities, the economy and the environment. This is the first strategic bushfire management plan for the Mallee- and Murray-Goulburn bushfire-risk-landscape, one of Victoria’s seven bushfire-risk landscapes. It uses a risk-based approach to planning for bushfire management, and seeks to pair local knowledge with world-leading bushfire simulation software, historical data and the best-available science to understand how bushfires behave.

Part of the science it has engaged with is a study led by CEED’s Dr Luke Kelly at the University of Melbourne. Kelly’s study applies what we know from fire histories to help conserve biodiversity.

“Our research helps us predict how planned burning influences risks to biodiversity,” says Kelly.

“We developed a method for determining the optimal fire history of a given area for biodiversity conservation by linking tools from three fields of research: species distribution modelling, composite indices of biodiversity, and decision science. By clearly defining fire management objectives based on the habitat requirements of fire-sensitive species in a community, this approach could be used to maximize biodiversity in fire-prone regions and nature reserves. This will allow land managers to consider the trade-off between protecting people and conserving wildlife when applying planned burning.”

The management strategy aims to keep native animal and plant populations healthy, while mitigating risks to life and property. The northern Mallee parks are some of the most intact areas of public land in Victoria and are home to many fire-sensitive plant and animal species, many of which are endangered.

The research provided an indication of how much area of vegetation in each post-fire growth stage is needed for healthy animal populations. Along with additional work produced by teams at University of Melbourne and La Trobe University, this study contributed to the development of Victoria’s fuel management strategy.

An important next step will be to predict the impact of bushfires on biodiversity under alternative scenarios of planned burning and climatic changes. In 2016, Kelly is leading an ARC Linkage Project with scientists from University of Melbourne, La Trobe University, the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC,  and The Victorian Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning.

Kelly says “I’m very excited about this new project, our continuing partnerships with land managers and the solutions we are developing for managing fire and biodiversity.”

More info: Luke Thomas Kelly This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Picture: The mallee shrublands and woodlands of Victoria have a long history of bushfires. (Photo by Lauren Brown)

Carbon AND biodiversity benefits on agricultural land

Carbon AND biodiversityThere's been much discussion recently about carbon farming: paying farmers to plant trees on their farm to sequester carbon. This could also be a boon for biodiversity and the environment and provide an alternative source of income in marginal agricultural areas. However, studies in recent years suggest that focusing on carbon is unlikely to give the most biodiversity bang for our buck.

Read more: Carbon AND biodiversity benefits on agricultural land