Trait Explorer: traits for any marine species

Published: 14 February 2017

By MERP scientist, Dr Jorn Bruggeman


Screenshot of the Trait Explorer

Part of MERP is dedicated to the characterisation of organism traits, such as size, predator-prey preference and physiological rates. For this purpose, we search existing databases and published papers (Module 1) and perform new experiments (Module 2). Trait information is needed to parameterize organism physiology and behaviour in models and translate species abundances into community-averaged traits and ultimately, ecosystem function. For both applications, the traits of interest must be known for all observed species. Unfortunately, with ever growing lists of species and traits, complete knowledge of all traits of all species will remain out of reach for the foreseeable future.

The Trait Explorer web server addresses this by inferring trait values for any marine species in the World Register of Marine Species. It is a form of “automated expert judgement” that combines the taxonomic position of the species and any information on its traits, to provide the best possible estimate of all traits of interest. For instance, estimates of mass conversion factors take into consideration that some taxa (e.g. jellyfish, sea cucumbers) tend to have a higher-than-average water content. Estimates of maximum mass consider the maximum length of the species, if available, to exploit the fact that length and mass are strongly correlated.

Taxonomy dendrogram showing the carbon:wet mass ratio. Dot colour represents the mean value for the traitThe trait values that the Trait Explorer provides reflect the quality and quantity of input data. Estimates for taxa and traits with few observations remain uncertain; this is shown by the provided uncertainty metrics. The more information that is fed into the system, the better the inferences will become: the best remedy for an uncertain or incorrect estimate is to provide more data. Present data sources include the maximum mass-length dataset compiled by Tom Webb, and the Brey at al. mass conversion factors. Datasets on physiological rates and additional size metrics will be added in the near future.

The Trait Explorer is currently used within the Shelf Seas Biogeochemistry programme to infer carbon : wet weight ratios for benthic species on the UK shelf. Within the next months, it will also be used within MERP to characterize species size distributions in the Celtic Sea and North Sea.

Everyone involved in MERP is encouraged to try the Trait Explorer; comments and suggestions will be taken on-board in future development. Please email your feedback to Jorn Bruggeman.

Related Information:

Trait Explorer

Bruggeman. J, Heringa. J, Brandt, B (2009). PhyloPars: estimation of missing parameter values using phylogeny. Nucleic Acids Res. 37 (suppl_2): W179-W184. 

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