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The use of functional traits has increased exponentially in ecology, particularly in attempting to understand plant strategies and ecosystem functioning. This popularity has led to many proposed definitions of functional traits, which in turn has informed recommendations about how to gather, summarize, and analyze trait data. In this paper, we revisit the definition of the functional trait from the perspective of physiological, community and ecosystem ecology, and reason towards a broad, unrestrictive, and applicable definition. We then outline the conceptual mismatch between this definition and the popular practice of summarizing trait information using unconstrained ordination . We make specific suggestions about alternative methods to gain a mechanistic insight into how traits translate into functions. We hope this paper will improve our ability to move towards an ecological synthesis using a trait-based approach.
Revised manuscript submitted to PeerJ concurrently with submission to a peer-reviewed journal