Don’t know what you got (‘til it’s measured)

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Global knowledge inequality threatens ecosystems across the Global South

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Abstract and authors

An international research team has revealed a knowledge gap that threatens our capacity to understand and protect tropical forests and other ecosystems from climate change.

In a paper published in the journal New Phytologist, researchers from the University at Buffalo, Western Sydney University (WSU), Aarhus University and UNSW show a lack of measurement of plant traits across the Global South and call for action to integrate regional and global data to fill the gap.

In the paper, they demonstrate how they more than doubled the information available globally about Australian plants by integrating the AusTraits database, an initiative supported by the Australian Research Data Commons (ARDC), with the global TRY database.

“Now we need to do the same for the Global South. We’re starting by documenting the largest gaps in plant trait information across the globe and creating open-source resources that will make it easier for every nation to document their biodiversity,” says Brian Maitner, a postdoctoral researcher at the University at Buffalo in New York State and first author on the paper.

“Plants are essential to almost all life on Earth, but our knowledge of plants is biased, and we certainly don’t know enough about the plants and ecosystems that are found across the Global South. We have vast amounts of information about plants in the Global North, collected over many decades,” says Associate Professor Rachael Gallagher of WSU’s Hawkesbury Institute for the Environment, an author of the paper.

“This disparity threatens our ability to understand and mitigate the impact of climate change and land-use change on plants, and to design effective strategies for restoration. It’s known as the ‘Raunkiærian shortfall’ in a nod to the Danish researcher who devised one of the first plant trait classifications.”

Big data has transformed ecology. The international TRY database contains over 10 million observations on about 131,000 plant species, covering height, leaf mass, seed mass, flowering time, fire response and more than 2,600 other traits. Analysing variations in these traits provides the key tools to measure and model changes in forests, grasslands and other ecosystems.

That’s allowing researchers to model and predict changes in:

  • the Cerrado, a region of savannahs in Brazil[1]
  • fire-affected plant communities in Australia[2]
  • tropical dry evergreen forest of India
  • agricultural systems[3].

By combining the global TRY database with AusTraits, a regional database focused on Australian plants, the team managed to more than double the completeness of trait data for the continent. This suggests that we can narrow the gap by bringing local and global data together.

“AusTraits has been working to make trait data more interpretable and easier to access,” says Dr Lizzy Wenk, AusTraits’ project manager. “One core project has been compiling the most complete trait dictionary to date, allowing users to immediately know which data is captured in a given trait and how it links to identical trait data in other databases. AusTraits also works hard to capture all study metadata and to present the output in an easy-to-use format.”

AusTraits was developed in partnership with the ARDC and 19 institutions. Rosie Hicks, CEO of the ARDC, says, “Supported by the Australian Government’s National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy, the ARDC invests in curated national data assets and platforms such as AusTraits to accelerate research in Australia and beyond. This paper validates the importance of the ongoing research infrastructure support that we provide for research.

“AusTraits is now an internationally recognised gold-standard database that adheres to the best practice in data standards at a national scale. It is an excellent example of why we are establishing the national-scale Planet Research Data Commons, which will provide a joined-up data infrastructure for earth and environmental research.”


Media contact:

Niall Byrne for ARDC,, 0417-131-977

[1] Tree mortality in the Amazon

[2] (using AusTraits)

[3] Global Primary Productivity


AusTraits is an open-source, harmonised database of Australian plant trait data, sourced from individual researchers, government entities (e.g. herbaria) or NGOs across Australia. Traits vary in scope from morphological attributes (e.g. leaf area, seed mass, plant height) to ecological attributes (e.g. fire response, flowering time, pollinators) and physiological measures of performance (e.g. photosynthetic gas exchange, water-use efficiency).

TRY is a network of vegetation scientists headed by Future Earth, the Max Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry, and iDiv providing free and open access to plant trait data. Their Plant Trait Database is the most comprehensive archive of global plant data, with open access to the public. It contains over 15 million records on 305,594 plant taxa.

The Open Traits Network is a global, decentralised community of researchers and institutions who welcomes anyone working towards standardising and integrating trait data across all organisms.

The Australian Research Data Commons (ARDC) is a national facility that’s accelerating Australian research and innovation by driving excellence in the creation, analysis, and retention of high-quality data assets. It is supported by NCRIS, the Australian Government’s National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy.

The ARDC partners with the research community and industry to build leading-edge digital research infrastructure to provide Australian researchers with competitive advantage through data.

New Phytologist is a leading international journal focusing on high quality, original research across the broad spectrum of plant sciences, from intracellular processes through to global environmental change. The journal is owned by the New Phytologist Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to the promotion of plant science. 

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Abstract and authors

A global assessment of the Raunkiærian shortfall in plants: geographic biases in our knowledge of plant traits

Traits (measurable attributes) both influence, and are influenced by, biotic and abiotic factors. The “Raunkiærian shortfall” in plant trait knowledge limits many scientific endeavors and spatial biases may contribute to erroneous conclusions.

Thus, there is an urgent need to assess spatial completeness of plant trait data, understand drivers of geographic biases, and identify solutions for filling regional gaps.

Here, we combine a comprehensive set of regional species checklists for vascular plants with data for 53 traits across 122,230 species to assess completeness across the globe. We compare the Raunkiærian shortfall with the Wallacean (distributional) and the Darwinian (phylogenetic) shortfalls and test whether trait completeness correlates with emerging anthropogenic changes.

We show that trait completeness is associated with socioeconomic and biological factors influencing sampling likelihood: completeness was positively associated with mean species range size, research expenditure, and human population density and negatively associated with endemism and richness.

Trait completeness was significantly correlated with climate change, human footprint, and phylogenetic completeness, but was not significantly correlated with biodiversity intactness or distributional completeness.

Integration of a second, regional trait database (AusTraits) more than doubled completeness in Australia, indicating that the creation and integration of regional databases can rapidly expand trait completeness.

Full paper at

Brian Maitner, University at Buffalo, Department of Geography, USA

Rachael V. Gallagher, Hawkesbury Institute for the Environment, Western Sydney University, Australia

Jens-Christian Svenning, Center for Ecological Dynamics in a Novel Biosphere (ECONOVO) & Center for Biodiversity Dynamics in a Changing World (BIOCHANGE), Department of Biology, Aarhus University, Denmark

Melanie Tietje, Section for Ecoinformatics and Biodiversity, Department of Biology, Aarhus University, Denmark

Elizabeth H. Wenk, Evolution & Ecology Research Centre, School of Biological, Earth, and Environmental Sciences, UNSW Sydney, Australia

Wolf L. Eiserhardt, Section for Ecoinformatics and Biodiversity, Department of Biology, Aarhus University, Denmark and Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, UK