Estimating themissing species bias in plant trait measurements

Brody Sandel, Alvaro G. Gutiérrez, Peter B. Reich, Franziska Schrodt, John Dickie, Jens Kattge

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

35 Scopus citations


Aim: Do plant trait databases represent a biased sample of species, and if so, can that bias be corrected? Ecologists are increasingly collecting and analysing data on plant functional traits, and contributing them to large plant trait databases. Many applications of such databases involve merging trait measurements with other data such as species distributions in vegetation plots; a process that invariably produces matrices with incomplete trait and species data. Typically, missing data are simply ignored and it is assumed that the missing species are missing at random. Methods: Here, we argue that this assumption is unlikely to be valid and propose an approach for estimating the strength of the bias regarding which species are represented in trait databases. The method leverages the fact that, within a given database, some species have many measurements of a trait and others have few (high vs low measurement intensity). In the absence of bias, there should be no relationship between measurement intensity and trait values. We demonstrate the method using five traits that are part of the TRY database, a global archive of plant traits. Our method also leads naturally to a correction for this bias, which we validate and apply to two examples. Results: Specific leaf area and seed mass were strongly positively biased (frequently measured species had higher trait values than rarely measured species), leaf nitrogen per unit mass and maximum height were moderately negatively biased, and maximum photosynthetic capacity per unit leaf area was weakly negatively biased. The bias-correction method yielded greatly improved estimates in the validation tests for the two most biased traits. Further, in our two applications, ecological interpretations were shown to be sensitive to uncorrected bias in the data. Conclusions: Species inclusion in trait databases appears to be strongly biased in some cases, and failure to correct this can lead to incorrect conclusions.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)828-838
Number of pages11
JournalJournal of Vegetation Science
Issue number5
StatePublished - Sep 1 2015

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2015 International Association for Vegetation Science.


  • Bias
  • Leaf nitrogen
  • Maximum height
  • Missing data
  • Photosynthesis rate
  • Plant functional trait
  • Seed mass
  • Specific leaf area


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