Seeing the tree from the forest: Predicting the future of plant communities
New algorithm explores future changes in plant populations
The ability to envisage the future may be closer than you would think. A recent paper by Sean Hammond and Karl Niklas in the August 2009 issue of the American Journal of Botany (available here) presents an algorithm that may be used to predict the future dynamics of plant communities, an increasingly interesting area of study as significant environmental changes, such as global climate change and invasive species, are affecting current plant communities.
Similar ecological factors, such as nutrient availability and habitat stability, play a role in the growth and development of both an individual plant and a community of plants, like a forest; however, the length of time that these factors effect change differs between individual plants that may live for decades and plant communities that may exist for thousands of years. A goal of plant ecology has been to find ways to predict plant behavior in communities based on observed properties of a few representative members.
Hammond and Niklas have developed an algorithm—spatially explicit, reiterative algorithm, or SERA—that explores whether changes occurring in plant communities, such as self-thinning and the competitive displacement of one species by another, can be attributed to the characteristics of the individual plants that comprise the community.