Where do functional traits come from? The role of theory and models

Michael R. Kearney, Marko Jusup, Melodie A. McGeoch, Sebastiaan A.L.M. Kooijman, Steven L. Chown

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review

38 Citations (Scopus)


The use of traits is growing in ecology and biodiversity informatics, with initiatives to collate trait data and integrate it into biodiversity databases. A need to develop better predictive capacity for how species respond to environmental change has in part motivated this focus. Functional traits are of most interest—those with a defined link to individual survival, development, growth and reproduction. Non-trivial challenges arise immediately in deciding which functional traits to prioritise and how to characterise them. Here we discuss the advantages of a theoretical perspective for defining functional traits in the context of dynamical systems models of energy and mass exchange that link organisms to their environments. We argue that the theoretical frameworks upon which such models are built (biophysical ecology, metabolic theory) provide clear criteria to decide upon functional trait definitions, measurement requirements and associated metadata, via their mathematical connection to model parameters and state variables, and thus to system performance (survival, development, growth and reproduction). We distinguish ‘descriptive’ traits from ‘functional’ traits by dividing the latter into four classes—parameter, model, threshold and estimation—according to whether they are model parameters, define model structure, are threshold state variables or can be used to estimate model parameters. We develop a decision tree for this classification and illustrate it in the context of mammalian heat exchange but emphasise the scheme's generality to any kind of organism. We show how a theoretical perspective may change how we prioritise traits for collection and databasing in ways that are not necessarily more difficult to achieve, especially with new technologies, and provide clear guidance for requisite metadata. The use of theoretically driven criteria for prioritising the collection of functional trait data will maximise the generality, quality and consistency of trait databases for comparative analyses. Such databases will simultaneously facilitate the development of integrated predictive modelling frameworks across multiple organisational scales from individuals to ecosystems. ​. A free Plain Language Summary can be found within the Supporting Information of this article.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1385-1396
Number of pages12
JournalFunctional Ecology
Issue number7
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2021


  • biophysics
  • life history
  • mechanistic niche models
  • metabolic ecology
  • physiological ecology

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