The secret life of plants

The secret life of plants

Healthy indigenous ecosystems are vital for life on Earth but the secret life of plants means we are still trying to figure out why different plant species grow and how they respond to climate change. 

University of Waikato biological scientist Dr Daniel Laughlin and a team of researchers are developing a model that can predict where plant species will grow and how their distribution may be influenced by environmental changes.

"The ability to predict what we observe in nature is the Holy Grail of ecology," he says. "But predicting species abundances is crucial if we are to understand the rate and direction of species migration in a rapidly changing world." 

With $345,000 funding from the Royal Society of New Zealand's Marsden Fund, Dr Laughlin's research explores how functional traits – heritable properties of plants that impact on fitness and performance – dictate species distributions along gradients of soil fertility and climate.

This new knowledge will then be incorporated into predictive ecological models.

A key stage of the project is the collection of leaf and wood trait data from New Zealand's commonly-found trees to investigate functional traits that influence plant fitness and growth. The functions of leaf and wood govern rates of photosynthesis and hydraulics which in turn determine plant survival rates in resource-limited environments.

The research is expected to make a substantial contribution to forest restoration, already a global effort where scientists seek to understand the mechanisms of plant community assembly in order to restore ecosystems degraded by pollution, fertilisers, development and climate change.

"Government agencies and community groups are trying to manage these dynamic environments so knowing why particular plants grow where they do and understanding the processes of community assembly will help us restore them more efficiently," says Dr Laughlin.