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How functional is functional? Ecological groupings in terrestrial animal ecology: towards an animal functional type approach

Abstract

Understanding mechanisms to predict changes in plant and animal communities is a key challenge in ecology. The need to transfer knowledge gained from single species to a more generalized approach has led to the development of categorization systems where species’ similarities in life strategies and traits are classified into ecological groups (EGs) like functional groups/types or guilds. While approaches in plant ecology undergo a steady improvement and refinement of methodologies, progression in animal ecology is lagging behind. With this review, we aim to initiate a further development of functional classification systems in animal ecology, comparable to recent developments in plant ecology. We here (i) give an overview of terms and definitions of EGs in animal ecology, (ii) discuss existing classification systems, methods and application areas of EGs (focusing on terrestrial vertebrates), and (iii) provide a “roadmap towards an animal functional type approach” for improving the application of EGs and classifications in animal ecology. We found that an animal functional type approach requires: (i) the identification of core traits describing species’ dependency on their habitat and life history traits, (ii) an optimization of trait selection by clustering traits into hierarchies, (iii) the assessment ofsoft traits” as substitute for hardly measurable traits, e.g. body size for dispersal ability, and (iv) testing of delineated groups for validation including experiments.

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Acknowledgments

We are grateful for comments on an earlier version of the manuscript by Eva Rossmanith, Stuart Pimm and an anonymous reviewer. The work was funded by the German Ministry of Education and Research in the framework of BIOTA Southern Africa (01LC0624I).

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Blaum, N., Mosner, E., Schwager, M. et al. How functional is functional? Ecological groupings in terrestrial animal ecology: towards an animal functional type approach. Biodivers Conserv 20, 2333–2345 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10531-011-9995-1

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Keywords

  • Ecological classification
  • Functional type
  • Guild
  • Functional trait
  • Trait selection
  • Effect group
  • Response group
  • Environmental relationships