The meaning of the term 'function' in ecology: a coral reef perspective

Bellwood, David R., Streit, Robert P., Brandl, Simon J., and Tebbett, Sterling B. (2019) The meaning of the term 'function' in ecology: a coral reef perspective. Functional Ecology, 33 (6). pp. 948-961.

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The inherent complexity of high-diversity systems can make them particularly difficult to understand. The relatively recent introduction of functional approaches, which seek to infer ecosystem functioning based on species' ecological traits, has revolutionized our understanding of these high-diversity systems. Today, the functional structure of an assemblage is widely regarded as a key indicator of the status or resilience of an ecosystem. Indeed, functional evaluations have become a mainstay of monitoring and management approaches. But is the heavy focus on broad metrics of functional structure grounded in empirical research? On tropical coral reefs, the ocean's most diverse ecosystems, remarkably few studies directly quantify ecosystem functions and the term 'function' is widely used but rarely defined, especially when applied to reef fishes. Our review suggests that most 'functional' studies do not study function as it relates to ecological processes. Rather, they look at easy-to-measure traits or proxies that are thought to have functional significance. However, these links are rarely tested empirically, severely limiting our capacity to extend results from community structure to the dynamic processes operating within high-diversity ecosystems such as coral reefs. With rapid changes in global ecosystems, and in their capacity to deliver ecosystem services, there is an urgent need to understand and empirically measure the role of organisms in various ecosystem functions. We suggest that if we are to understand and manage transitioning coral reefs in the Anthropocene, a broad definition of the word 'function' is needed along with a focus on ecological processes and the empirical quantification of functional roles. In this review, we propose a universal operational definition of the term 'function' that works from a cellular to a global level. Specifically, it is the movement or storage of energy or material. Within this broad definitional framework, all functions are part of a continuum that is tied together by the process-based unifier of material fluxes. With this universal definition at hand, we then present a path forward that will allow us to fully harness the power of functional approaches in understanding and managing high-diversity systems such as coral reefs. A plain language summary is available for this article.

Item ID: 60047
Item Type: Article (Research - C1)
ISSN: 1365-2435
Keywords: anthropocene, coral reef fishes, ecosystem function, functional diversity, functional groups, trait-based ecology
Copyright Information: © 2018 The Authors Functional Ecology © 2018 British Ecological Society
Funders: Australian Research Council (ARC)
Projects and Grants: ARC CE140100020
Date Deposited: 03 Jul 2019 07:48
FoR Codes: 41 ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENCES > 4102 Ecological applications > 410203 Ecosystem function @ 100%
SEO Codes: 96 ENVIRONMENT > 9603 Climate and Climate Change > 960305 Ecosystem Adaptation to Climate Change @ 100%
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