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Measuring biodiversity in any given ecosystem has traditionally started with a count of the existing species. But according to Nature News, researchers like Emmett Duffy, director of the Smithsonian Institution's Tennenbaum Marine Observatories, are starting to think that truly measuring the biodiversity of an ecosystem should involve looking at the diversity of total functional traits present, rather than just counting species.

"It's an idea that's increasingly in vogue for ecologists," Nature News says. "Biodiversity, it states, doesn't have to be just about the number of a species in an ecosystem. Equally important to keeping an ecosystem healthy and resilient are the species' different characteristics and the things they can do — measured in terms of specific traits such as body size or branch length."

Functional biodiversity affects how ecologists think about conservation, the article adds, and even some governments have started incorporating the idea into their efforts to save or maintain native species.

The original mindset of biodiversity equaling the number of species in existence came about because there was little information about how ecosystems are structured, Nature News says. Now, advances in molecular biology technology, analysis, and statistical tools have enabled scientists to both gather and understand data.

Understanding functional biodiversity could also help change views on which ecosystems should truly be considered biodiversity hotspots, according to Nature News, as well as highlight ecosystem vulnerabilities that were previously underappreciated.

"The lens of functional diversity helps to create a more nuanced picture of ecosystems," the article adds.

Some researchers are currently working to build databases of functional trait diversity. "TRY, hosted at the Max Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry in Jena, Germany, is an international network of plant scientists who have been building a publicly accessible database of traits and functions since 2007. It now contains records for 100,000 plant species," Nature News reports. "There's also the ReeFish database … which aims to provide trait and geographic information for all tropical reef fish. And the Reef Life Survey … has trait records for more than 5,000 species from all ocean basins."

The various research projects are ongoing, the article adds, with particular emphasis on developing a comprehensive and clear definition of what a trait actually is.