Small is beautiful: grassroots projects feed global data synthesis

Provided by Alison Munson

Traits of Plants in Canada (TOPIC) workshop at Mont St-Hilaire, Québec, CANADA. Lead scientists centre front: Isabelle Aubin (right, in orange) and Alison Munson (left of Isabelle). Photo credit: Martin Duval.

This post refers to the perspective article Managing data locally to answer questions globally: the role of collaborative science in ecology by Aubin et al. in the Journal of Vegetation Science (

All of the authors of our manuscript can attest to personal experience that supports our title statement. Several years ago, Isabelle Aubin, Eric Garnier, and myself, among others involved in our traits summer school, took an extra day in Quebec (at beautiful Mont St Hilaire), to discuss how to accelerate the acquisition of plant trait data in Canada, to feed the newly-launched TOPIC data bank (Traits of Plants in Canada at  One of the principal ideas originating from discussions was to initiate team projects that could link regional groups of scientists to address key ecological questions, while acquiring scarce trait data. Eric’s grassland work with the CEFE team of ECOPAR in Montpellier was certainly a good model to follow (

Within three years, two of the teams described in the article were funded. I headed up the Co-VITAS team with Isabelle and colleagues to evaluate intraspecific variability of above and belowground traits of boreal forest understory plants, at a continent-wide scale. We were able to bring 23 research groups on board from across the country, who were willing to measure traits during a narrow seasonal window, and collaborate by sending scans and material to centralized laboratories for measurement (Kumordzi et al. 2019, and two other manuscripts in preparation). It was complicated logistically, but highly stimulating, and it worked (see my blog for Functional Ecology accompanying the first publication: Insights, August 30, 2019). With Canadian Forest Service colleagues, Isabelle started a multidisciplinary group (our third example, Island Lake project; Boisvert-Marsh et al. 2016), focused on the impacts of different levels of forest biomass removal on ecosystem structure and function. In this case, the challenge was to foster data and knowledge exchange among scientists from diverse disciplines to tackle transdisciplinary questions. The data generated has since fed into disciplinary repositories such as TOPIC and CRITTER. These experiences convinced us that smaller teams work best to bring people into a collaborative environment to share data. We knew most of the people that we contacted across Canada, and they knew our work; there was a level of trust among the researchers that is not always there when a new initiative is launched among scientists (though I find this is less so in the early career generation, they are more used to this). Thanks to Natural Resources Canada and the Canadian Institute for Ecology and Evolution (our Canadian synthesis centre), we also brought most of this group together for a workshop, in order to look at the results together and map out three manuscripts. I think this was an important part of the successful process, and most of the researchers attended, even without full financial support.

Island Lake research group in the field. Photo credit: Mark Primavera.

Quite encouraged by these projects, then, we thought it important to document here why we think small teams can successfully feed global databases. To attest to this, TOPIC is now linked to TRY (, so that our national data can be used by researchers working at the global scale. In the local data base, TOPIC, data are checked meticulously, metadata are standardized, and scientists can decide at which level they want to manage their personal data (for example, personal contact regarding the study objectives, decisions of involvement in a global study). By building trust locally, we believe that we can bring a broader diversity of researchers into a new paradigm of data sharing. We realize that trait data are still relatively scarce in Canada, but this is rapidly changing, in part due to Isabelle’s efforts to mentor many graduate students using the TOPIC base, but also related to our international graduate course on functional traits that has trained dozens of Canadian graduate students to work in this framework. The ECR in this manuscript (Françoise Cardou, Laura Boisvert-Marsh and Manuella Strukelj Humphery) have all grown up, so to speak, in an open data context, which facilitates their future work in such a context. We are very positive about these related initiatives; following these successes, two other national data bases are being developed: 1) CRITTER, for invertebrates, led by Tanya Handa, (UQAM), which is functional, and 2) a non-vascular plant trait data base, led by Nicole Fenton (UQAT), which is a current working group. All of these (and no doubt many others like them) will continue to serve the cause of making trait data available for global-scale work. Yes, small is beautiful, and grassroots efforts are well-grounded.

Island Lake site in Canada. Photo credit: Françoise Cardou.


Boisvert-March, L., Aubin, I., Fleming, R., Hazlett, P., Morris, D., Venier, L., Webster, K., & Wilson, S. (2016). The Island Lake biomass harvest experiment: early results. Natural Resources Canada, Canadian Forestry Service. Great Lakes Forestry Centre, Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario and Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, Centre for Northern Forest Ecosystem Research, Thunder Bay, Ontario. Information Report GLC-X-16 10p.

Kumordzi, B.B., Aubin, I., Cardou, F., Shipley, B., Violle, C., Johnstone, J., Anand, M., Arsenault, A., Bell, F.W., Bergeron, Y., Boulangeat, I., Brousseau, M., De Grandpré, L., Delagrange, S., Fenton, N.J., Gravel, D., Macdonald, S.E., Hamel, B., Higelin, M., Hébert, F., Isabel, N., Mallik, A., McIntosh, A.C.S., McLaren, J.R., Messier, C., Morris, D., Thiffault, N., Tremblay, J.-P., & Munson, A.D. (2019). Geographic scale and disturbance influence intraspecific trait variability in leaves and roots of North American understorey plants. Functional Ecology, 33, 1771-1784.

Brief personal summary: Alison Munson (@MunsonAlison) is a biogeochemist with a functional approach to studying forest, prairie and urban ecosystems. Her main axes of research are the mechanisms of stabilization of carbon in soils and the contribution of root traits to carbon stabilization. She co-manages a non-profit dedicated to management of urban soils to improve resilience of vegetation in cities. She also writes fiction in her spare time (which is spare).