Building trait datasets: effect of methodological choice on a study of invasion

Estíbaliz Palma, Peter A. Vesk, Jane A. Catford

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Trait-based approaches are commonly used to understand ecological phenomena and processes. Trait data are typically gathered by measuring local specimens, retrieving published records, or a combination of the two. Implications of methodological choices in trait-based ecological studies – including source of data, imputation technique, and species selection criteria – are poorly understood. We ask: do different approaches for dataset-building lead to meaningful differences in trait datasets? If so, do these differences influence findings of a trait-based examination of plant invasiveness, measured as abundance and spread rate?

We collected on-site (Victoria, Australia) and off-site (TRY database) height and specific leaf area records for as many species as possible out of 157 exotic herbaceous plants. For each trait, we built six datasets of species-level means using records collected on-site, off-site, on-site and off-site combined, and off-site supplemented via imputation based on phylogeny and/or trait correlations. For both traits, the six datasets were weakly correlated (ρ=0.31-0.95 for height; ρ=0.14-0.88 for
SLA), reflecting differences in species’ trait values from the various estimations. Inconsistencies in species’ trait means across datasets did not translate into large differences in trait-invasion relationships. Although we did not find that methodological choices for building trait datasets greatly affected ecological inference about local invasion processes, we nevertheless recommend: (1) using on-site records to answer local-scale ecological questions whenever possible, and (2) transparency around methodological decisions related to selection of study species and estimation of missing trait values.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)919–935
Early online date17 Aug 2022
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 17 Aug 2022


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