Accounting for herbaceous communities in process-based models will advance our understanding of “grassy” ecosystems

Kevin R. Wilcox, Anping Chen, Meghan L. Avolio, Ethan E. Butler, Scott Collins, Rosie Fisher, Trevor Keenan, Nancy Y. Kiang, Alan K. Knapp, Sally E. Koerner, Lara Kueppers, Guopeng Liang, Eva Lieungh, Michael Loik, Yiqi Luo, Ben Poulter, Peter Reich, Katherine Renwick, Melinda D. Smith, Anthony WalkerEnsheng Weng, Kimberly J. Komatsu

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


Grassland and other herbaceous communities cover significant portions of Earth's terrestrial surface and provide many critical services, such as carbon sequestration, wildlife habitat, and food production. Forecasts of global change impacts on these services will require predictive tools, such as process-based dynamic vegetation models. Yet, model representation of herbaceous communities and ecosystems lags substantially behind that of tree communities and forests. The limited representation of herbaceous communities within models arises from two important knowledge gaps: first, our empirical understanding of the principles governing herbaceous vegetation dynamics is either incomplete or does not provide mechanistic information necessary to drive herbaceous community processes with models; second, current model structure and parameterization of grass and other herbaceous plant functional types limits the ability of models to predict outcomes of competition and growth for herbaceous vegetation. In this review, we provide direction for addressing these gaps by: (1) presenting a brief history of how vegetation dynamics have been developed and incorporated into earth system models, (2) reporting on a model simulation activity to evaluate current model capability to represent herbaceous vegetation dynamics and ecosystem function, and (3) detailing several ecological properties and phenomena that should be a focus for both empiricists and modelers to improve representation of herbaceous vegetation in models. Together, empiricists and modelers can improve representation of herbaceous ecosystem processes within models. In so doing, we will greatly enhance our ability to forecast future states of the earth system, which is of high importance given the rapid rate of environmental change on our planet.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)6453-6477
Number of pages25
JournalGlobal change biology
Issue number23
StatePublished - Dec 2023
Externally publishedYes


  • biogeochemistry
  • ecology
  • ecophysiology
  • plant competition
  • plant growth
  • process-based models
  • vegetation demographic models

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Global and Planetary Change
  • Environmental Chemistry
  • Ecology
  • General Environmental Science


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