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Labwork Short: Measuring Traits

One of my major research focuses is how plant functional traits can improve restoration (and conservation) by helping us to predict how well plants will do given a specific environmental situation. If you haven’t heard of functional traits before, it might help to think about body mass index in humans which can tell us quite a bit about mortality risk and exercise capacity. In plants, similar traits can tell us about ecological strategies. Measurements of physical features such as leaves, roots, and seeds give us insight into how well a plant will do after a drought and disturbance (among many other things). I plan to spend a lot more time talking about the fascinating world of traits in coming posts, but for this lab-work short, I wanted to share a time-lapse video of me processing plant samples and measuring traits.

The video is fast, so here’s a quick break down. You will first see me cut leaves off of stems that have been rehydrated in water overnight, then weigh the leaves, and finally line them up on a whiteboard for a photo. Later on, I will use that “fresh wet” weight, a dried weight of the same leaves, and data from a software program that can calculate leaf area from the photos to determine the specific leaf area (SLA) of each species. SLA relates to growth rate, ability to compete with neighbors, and how much photosynthesis a plant will be able to do. Even though it seems like it would be ideal to have large leaves with lots of chlorophyll with which to photosynthesize, plants cannot infinitely invest in these structures without costing themselves in other areas like seed development and hardiness in stressful environmental conditions. Evergreen trees have needles for that very reason- a big, thin leaf wouldn’t stand a chance in freezing, snowy conditions! SLA helps us to understand the “strategies” that plants “choose” which balance these trade-offs for the best chance at survival and reproduction. Stay tuned for more articles about plant traits and their usefulness to ecologist, restoration practitioners, and conservationists!

Cheers! -Häslein (aka FBK, aka Sienna)

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