Dimensions of Biodiversity

"It is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds ... and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent upon each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us."

Charles Darwin 1859, On the Origin of Species

Image of a young Charles Darwin.


Darwin’s parting paragraph reminds us that any patch of seemingly chaotic vegetation in fact reflects actors with ancient evolutionary histories interacting in complex, but interpretable, ways according to rules that biologists have sought to understand ever since. Our success is evident.

What factors sustain plant diversity?

How do plants persist in landscapes subject to climate change, disturbance and habitat fragmentation?

Our Dimensions of Biodiversity project underway in the Department of Botany at the University of Wisconsin-Madison will investigate the evolutionary roots of plant diversity, how plant traits diversified, and how evolutionary history and traits affect species persistence and weedy plant invasions. The project focuses on Wisconsin, where remarkably detailed data exist on shifts in the distribution, abundance, and diversity of forest and prairie plants over the past 50+ years. We will use DNA sequences to reconstruct relationships across the entire flora and quantify functionally significant traits across several hundred species. This will allow us to assess which ecological and evolutionary factors underlie historic shifts in species abundance and distribution. Analyses of genome size and genetic variation in a subset of species will demonstrate how dispersal and population dynamics affect geographic range and responses to habitat fragmentation and landscape dynamics. Data on historical community changes and climate projections will be used to predict future changes in range and abundance. This project will thus integrate our understanding of how plant traits evolve, how traits relate to ecological success, and how traits interact with phylogeny, genome size, and landscape conditions.

Overall diagram of the interactions between species characteristics.

For more information on the project, please visit our project details page and our subproject overview page. A summary of our project also can be found on pp. 56 - 57 of a booklet published by the National Science Foundation describing the 2010 and 2011 Dimensions of Biodiversity Projects (click on the image below to download a PDF):

2011 NSF Dimensions of Biodiversity Abstract Booklet

2011 NSF Dimensions of Biodiversity abstract booklet.