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Mapping Functional Traits: Comparing Abundance and Presence-Absence Estimates at Large Spatial Scales

Tim Newbold, Stuart Butchart, Cagan Sekercioglu, Drew Purves, and Jorn Scharlemann


Efforts to quantify the composition of biological communities increasingly focus on functional traits. The composition of communities in terms of traits can be summarized in several ways. Ecologists are beginning to map the geographic distribution of trait-based metrics from various sources of data, but the maps have not been tested against independent data. Using data for birds of the Western Hemisphere, we test for the first time the most commonly used method for mapping community trait composition – overlaying range maps, which assumes that the local abundance of a given species is unrelated to the traits in question – and three new methods that as well as the range maps include varying degrees of information about interspecific and geographic variation in abundance. For each method, and for four traits (body mass, generation length, migratory behaviour, diet) we calculated community-weighted mean of trait values, functional richness and functional divergence. The maps based on species ranges and limited abundance data were compared with independent data on community species composition from the American Christmas Bird Count (CBC) scheme coupled with data on traits. The correspondence with observed community composition at the CBC sites was mostly positive (62/73 correlations) but varied widely depending on the metric of community composition and method used (R2: 5.6×10−7 to 0.82, with a median of 0.12). Importantly, the commonly-used range-overlap method resulted in the best fit (21/22 correlations positive; R2: 0.004 to 0.8, with a median of 0.33). Given the paucity of data on the local abundance of species, overlaying range maps appears to be the best available method for estimating patterns of community composition, but the poor fit for some metrics suggests that local abundance data are urgently needed to allow more accurate estimates of the composition of communities.


Publication typeArticle
Published inPLoS ONE

Newer versions

Tim Newbold, Jorn P W Scharlemann, Stuart H M Butchart, Cagan A Sekercioglu, Rob Alkemade, Hollie Booth, and Drew W Purves. Ecological traits affect the response of tropical forest bird species to land-use intensity, Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, Series B, The Royal Society, November 2012.

Previous versions

Drew Purves and Lindsay Turnbull. Different but equal: the implausible assumption at the heart of neutral theory, Journal of Animal Ecology, British Ecological Society, 3 August 2010.

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