For some time it has been known that the size, form, and function of organisms change depending on the environmental conditions where they live, but the causes and consequences of this diversity are still not well understood. Functional biogeography attempts to answer these questions by centering on the concept of the functional trait, defined as any characteristic of an organism which affects its demography (i.e., its establishment, growth, survival, or fertility). Functional traits make it possible to relate organism characteristics with the properties of the systems in which they exist (communities and ecosystems), and are complementary to the more traditional approaches based on geographical species distributions.
Functional biogeography puts an emphasis on how functional traits vary on broad geographic scales (regional, global), and in this sense the field is a relatively new one. With this approach, the field contributes very powerful tools for identifying the regions most vulnerable to environmental changes (climate change, among them) and determining the impacts of these environmental changes on ecosystem function and services provided to society.
The main lines of work and experience of CREAF in this field include:
- Patterns of distribution of functional traits and the relationships between them: We study the global patters of the distribution of functional traits in both plants and animals - how these traits are related among each other and to what degree these relationships reflect general laws governing organism function.
- Responses to natural disturbances: We study the functional traits determining the responses of plants and animals to key disturbances in a Mediterranean context, such as drought and fire. We also analyze the relationship between functional traits related with resource use and those associated with high resistance to disturbances and posterior regeneration.
- Response to anthropogenic disturbances: We study the functional features determining the responses of plants and animals to human-made disturbances such as urbanization and deforestation.
- Changes in community composition and structure: We study the role of functional traits in changes in the composition and structure of communities of plants and animals along environmental gradients, and assess how these changes affect the functional properties of ecosystems (e.g., flows of water and carbon) and the environmental services they provide.