Trait-based modelling in ecology: A review of two decades of research

L. Zakharova, K. M. Meyer, M. Seifan

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

69 Scopus citations


Trait-based approaches are an alternative to species-based approaches for functionally linking individual organisms with community structure and dynamics. In the trait-based approach, rather than focusing on the species identity of the organism, the focus is on the organism traits, which represent their physiological, morphological, or life-history characteristics. Although used in ecological research for several decades, this approach only emerged in ecological modelling about twenty years ago. We review this rise of trait-based models and trace the occasional transfer of trait-based modelling concepts between terrestrial plant ecology, animal and microbial ecology, and aquatic ecology, discuss terminology of trait-based approaches and evaluate future implementation of trait-based models, including cross-discipline exchange. Trait-based models have a variety of purposes, such as predicting changes in community patterns under climate and land-use change, understand underlying mechanisms for community assemblies, planning and assessing conservation management, or studying invasion processes. In modelling, trait-based approaches can reduce technical challenges such as computational limitations, scaling problems, and data scarcity. However, we note inconsistencies in the current usage of terms in trait-based approaches and these inconsistencies must be resolved if trait-based concepts are to be easily exchanged between disciplines. Specifically, future trait-based models may further benefit from incorporating intraspecific trait variability and addressing more complex species interactions. We also recommend expanding the combination of trait-based approaches with individual-based modelling to simplify the parameterization of models, to capture plant-plant interactions at the individual level, and to explain community dynamics under global change.

Original languageEnglish
Article number108703
JournalEcological Modelling
StatePublished - 1 Sep 2019


  • Functional traits
  • Functional types
  • Individual-based modelling
  • Model types
  • Trait-based approach
  • Trait-based model

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology
  • Ecological Modeling


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