New paper published – Trait-based analysis of decline in plant species ranges during the 20th century: a regional comparison between the UK and Estonia

Text by Lauri Laanisto

After returning from post-doc I happened to participate in the Gatherings of Biosemiotics conference that in 2012 took place in Tartu. I was still between jobs at that moment. I went there just out of curiosity, but ended up with a position in the Botany department (I share my affiliation, fifty-fifty, between Plant Physiology and Botany departments, which is kind of logical as I´m actually an ecologist). As it turned out one of the researchers in Botany had just left like couple of days ago. And it was a sudden departure as well. Completely out of the blue.

So, couple of days later I went to talk with the head of department, professor Tiiu Kull, who offered me to work on a unique dataset, which, unfortunately for the resigned researcher, had not produced any unique or special results. Well, actually there were absolutely no results to report whatsoever.

The dataset comprised of distribution data from two generations of vegetation atlases for both Estonia and the UK. As it happens, both countries use the same method for compiling floristic atlases. Moreover – both generations of atlases had been compiled during more or less the same time in both countries: 1930-1969 and 1987-1999 in the UK and 1921-1970 and 1971–2004 in Estonia.

The obvious thing to study was of course the persistence of plant species from one atlas period to the next. And how similar the persistence patterns were in the two countries which have quite a different socio-economic environment: for example, human population density in the UK is 662 people per square kilometer, while in Estonia this number is 29 (and declining); forests and wetlands cover 9 percent of UK, while 63 percent in Estonia (50% of forest and 13% wetlands).

Previous attempts had been trying to associate persistence patterns with Ellenberg numbers, and like most of analysis based on those numbers, the result was not a pretty picture. I decided to go a bit more mechanistic and also cover much wider array of traits and parameters – include traits and parameters that function in very different temporal and spatial scales. From evolutionary origin and species age to species pollination vectors and human tolerance.

The core idea was to analyze all the different factors together, in the same pool, and see which factors sink and which ones swim. Because the literature is full of results connecting some specific factor with some specific species of species group in the light of species range dynamics and distribution patterns. But it difficult to estimate, on a larger scale, which of these factors tend to explain these dynamics and patterns better. Comparison of the relative relevance of all the possible mechanisms affecting plant distribution is usually hard to come by. But when analyzing most of the pertinent factors together in the same pool, it might give a much better picture of what matters and what not.

Secondly, I decided to analyze the most common and widely spread species, instead of the usual focus on nice or protected or rare species. Not that the nice and rare and protected species do not deserve to be analyzed. No. They do. It is the question of balance. You can find thousands of papers on orchid distribution, but on the Asteracea, not so many. Yet, majority of the biomass, ecological and ecophysiological processes are carried out by the ordinary species. These plants provide the most food for the animals, fungi and so on. So I wanted to find out how persistent have been the most common and widely spread plants.

And the results are now available, you can read which factors sunk and which swam:

Laanisto, L., Sammul, M., Kull, T., Macek, P., & Hutchings, M. J. (2015). Trait‐based analysis of decline in plant species ranges during the 20th century: a regional comparison between the UK and Estonia. Global change biology, DOI: 10.1111/gcb.12887. (link to full text)

Some comments of the submission stats as well. As the manuscript ended up rather long and not within the page limits of most journals, we sought out journals that accepted more substantial submissions.

Our first choice was Ecography. They publish a lot of studies about distribution based on modelling and we thought that they might, for a change, be interested in a study that is based on actual distribution data. However both of the reviewers completely misunderstood our manuscript precisely on the aforementioned aspect – somehow they both presumed that our data was modelled (we did not even mention the term on our text).

So the reviewers argued there were not enough species analyzed (although more than half of native flora in both countries were involved) and also that the countries analyzed were wrong – we should have compared Denmark with Estonia, not the UK. It´s silly on so many levels that I´m not go into it… They also complained that the statistics was too simple (which I think is usually strength, not weakness), that nobody knows how the vegetation atlas data is compiled, that human density in the UK and Estonia is way too different (which in our mind was the argument for, not against comparing these countries) etc- etc. It was a total and complete misunderstanding. And regrettably the reviewers were really sarcastic in their tone, implicating that everything we have done is meaningless and worthless. It would have been ok, if they´d suggested that this journal is not the right place and so on, but their condemnations were absolutistic. I´m not sure if I´ll be submitting to this journal ever again…

So after rejection with no resubmission we sent the manuscript to Global Change Biology. And then something completely unexpected happened – they accepted it right away. Not even minor revision was required. We were, or at least I was, still feeling really down because of Ecography´s decision, and did not expect that our paper will be accepted basically without any changes. Eben our most experienced co-author, Mike Hutchings, said that this has never happened to him before.

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5 Responses to New paper published – Trait-based analysis of decline in plant species ranges during the 20th century: a regional comparison between the UK and Estonia

  1. Sylvain says:

    When working on species range shifts using historical field data, surprisingly, people thinks it would have been better to use a model…
    I already got this kind of comment. People trusts DVGM but not data!
    Regarding GCB, one of my paper has also been directly accepted without proper review… but most of them have been rejected without review! So my conclusion is that they don’t want to do peer review!Surprizinly,

    Liked by 1 person

    • laanisto says:

      That is surprising indeed. Though it is hard to imagine what would be the advantages of modelled data over actual data in this context. But thanks for forewarn – now I know what to expect with further submissions.
      Well, to be precise, in our case GCB had two reviews which both approved the paper. Basically without any criticism. So GCB does not completely avoid peer review.


      • Sylvain says:

        I went through the paper. This is a huge effort. congratulation!
        I haven’t checked your species list in suppl mat but I am wondering whether you have observed the same trend for trees only?


  2. laanisto says:

    Thanks for the kind words!
    I did a quick math for trees. There were 32 species in the dataset that can be considered trees (grow more than 3m tall). Persistence rates for them were better than the average – in Estonia 87,5% and in the UK 80%. Which is kind of expected, as their life cycle is much longer and local extinction takes more time. But also – trees are much easier to spot when doing fieldwork for vegetation atlas. So there might be some sampling bias that makes trees appear more persistant in time.


  3. Pingback: Our lab´s publications in 2015 | Ülo Niinemets’ Lab

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