The new COMPADRE for Plant Ecologists
(November 21st, 2014) Ecology has a new star: the COMPADRE Plant Matrix Database. The engine comprises demographic information on 598 plant species worldwide. It’s becoming an invaluable tool in analysing big amounts of data and decreasing redundancy between original research data.
What is a plant matrix? A plant matrix is an array of numbers that model the population development of a plant species over time. Plant matrix models predict the life cycle of plant species, including survival, growth and reproduction parameters. In 1941, the economist Harro Bernardelli described populations using matrices, for the first time. In 1945, the physiologist, Patrick Leslie, characterized rat female population growth using a special matrix model, later named the Leslie matrix. This work pioneered matrix model use in demographic studies.
COMPADRE v. 1.0, i.e. comparative plant demographic research, was launched in 1989 by Jonathan Silvertown, currently at The Open University, and Miguel Franco, at Plymouth University, UK. It comprised demographic data of 105 plant species, which helped researchers understand the evolution of senescence in plants. During the following 20 years, many more plant matrix databases came into existence. This, however, didn’t make life much easier for plant ecologists: the databases had information “just on static characteristics of plants such as what kind of growth form they have or where they occur” says Yvonne Buckley, professor of Zoology at the Trinity College Dublin, who’s involved with the database’s development. She emphasises that COMPADRE v. 3.0 “is unique as it contains information […] on the process by which plants maintain populations or that put them at risk of extinction – their population dynamics”. The database comes from the joint collaboration of scientists at the Trinity College Dublin and The Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research (MPIDR), Rostock. The database containing information on nearly 600 plant species is freely available and easy to access. A user guide is provided online.
The data processing team consists of undergraduate students who are always on the hunt for new plant demographic data. The data is processed using a strict protocol before publishing it online, which guarantees reliability. The students don't shy away from contacting original authors for additional information.
Since its inception in 1989, the database is continually being updated and developed, contributing to the release of 30 genuine publications. “One of the great strengths of comparative studies is their use as a tool for identifying generalities that can be extrapolated to poorly known species,” say the authors of an introductory article published in the Journal of Ecology. Moreover, COMPADRE v. 3.0 will help scientists address questions about food scarceness in the developed world, plant species extinction, invasiveness and senescence.
Buckley, for instance, is “seeking to understand the fundamental drivers of animal and plant population processes in a rapidly changing world”. She believes, “Plant populations around the world provide us with food, shelter, clothing and vital ecosystem services like water filtration. This database will enable scientists to work out what kinds of populations can continue to provide these products to us for our survival and wellbeing, and what kinds of populations may be at risk of decline or extinction. COMPADRE v. 3.0 will catalyse research in plant population dynamics as more and more scientists use the data, and discover new things about how plants do what they do!”