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Creating a global vegetation database

TERN is lending a hand in the creation and population of a global vegetation-plot database that will assist in the development of climate change adaptation strategies

Thanks to local environmental studies, such as TERN’s plot based monitoring, we know a lot about how plants develop their characteristics, including their height, flowers, seeds, leaves, roots and life histories. We know that these characteristics, known as plant traits, are determined by both local factors, such as soil, disturbances, and competition, and regional factors, such as weather.

We don’t, however, know that much about how the larger scale factors, such as global climate, affect the traits of local plant communities. How important are these global factors in explaining trait variation in local plant communities worldwide? Do changes in global climate out-weigh the effects of local and regional factors? We need to know the answers to these questions before we can effectively develop and implement local environmental management measures to mitigate the negative effects of climate change.

The creation of a global vegetation-plot database will help researchers investigate how global climate influences the traits of local plant communities, including their growth, the development of flowers, seeds, leaves and roots, and their life histories.

To answer such questions, researchers are scaling-up local plot based environmental studies and combining vegetation data from all around the world. An international team, including researchers from TERN’s Eco-informatics facility, are working to create global vegetation-plot database of the biomes of the Earth that can be combined with the existing global plant trait database TRY .

To build this global database a working group, called sPlot, are collaborating with TERN to import the wealth of plot-based ecological data contained in Eco-Informatics’ AEKOS data portal. Plot data from AEKOS will be combined with those of a number of other European-based databases to form the biggest, multi-continental vegetation-plot database in the world, covering biomes in Europe, Africa, Asia and now Australia.

The sPlot group estimates that they have already collated approximately half a million georeferenced plots and steadily growing.

Earlier this month, Eco-informatics’ Data Facilitator Anita Smyth travelled to Germany to attend the second sPlot workshop. Together with around 50 other attendees representing plot and trait databases, like AEKOS, as well as specialists in plant community ecology, macroecology, global change ecology, biodiversity informatics and statistics gathered in Leipzig to start concrete analyses based on the accumulated data.

‘A key message from the workshop for me was the enormous value ӔKOS data added to the global picture, says Anita.

‘I came away from the meeting completely motivated about the value of a nationally integrated vegetation plot data to support new science and knowledge about the world’s vegetation communities.’

The sPlot working group (above) are combining vegetation data from a number of worldwide sources, including TERN Eco-Informatics’ AEKOS data portal to form the biggest, multi-continental vegetation-plot database in the world, with vegetation plots in biomes in Europe, Africa, Asia and now Australia (below)

Dr Juergen Dengler, Coordinator of the sPlot project at the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv) says ‘We’re grateful to TERN Eco-informatics for providing plant data from the Australian Ecological Knowledge and Observation (AEKOS) for our workshop. It’s an extensive database covering most of Australia and we only became aware of it thanks to a presentation by Dr David Turner [of TERN Eco-informatics] at the IAVS Symposium in Perth in September this year.

‘AEKOS’s 22,000 plots are contributing to the 659,000 plots in the first global plot database sPlot 1.0 which was prepared for the second sPlot Workshop in Leipzig. In combination with the global trait database TRY, many critical questions about global patterns of plant trait variability at community level can now for the first time be addressed across the world’s biomes.

‘The Australian data are of particular value as they cover a continent and several biomes otherwise not yet or not well represented in the sPlot database.’

AEKOS data portal strengthens its international reputation

In addition to AEKOS’ collaborations on the world stage, the data portal has also recently received a mention in a scientific paper published in the Journal of Ecology.  The paper, by a team of international researchers, compares a number of ecological databases and introduces another resource for plant demography, called ‘Compadre’. In their comparisons they refer to AEKOS as ‘a model for future efforts’.

‘New online repositories such as the Australian Ecological Knowledge and Observation System (http://www.ecoinformatics.org.au) have made progress at integrating rich ecological data at a national level via online tools for data description and publication and serve as a model for future efforts,’ write the authors on page 14 of the paper.

Published in TERN newsletter December 2014

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