Disentangling biotic and abiotic drivers of intraspecific trait variation in woody plant seedlings at forest edges

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In fragmented forests, edge effects can drive intraspecific variation in seedling performance that influences forest regeneration and plant composition. However, few studies have attempted to disentangle the relative biotic and abiotic drivers of intraspecific variation in seedling performance. In this study, we carried out a seedling transplant experiment with a factorial experimental design on three land-bridge islands in the Thousand Island Lake, China, using four common native woody plant species. At different distances from the forest edge (2, 8, 32, 128 m), we transplanted four seedlings of each species into each of three cages: full-cage, for herbivore-exclusion; half-cage, that allowed herbivore access but controlled for caging artefacts; and no-cage control. In the 576 cages, we recorded branch architecture, leaf traits and seedling survival for each seedling before and after the experimental treatment. Overall, after one full growing season, edge-induced abiotic drivers and varied herbivory pressure led to intraspecific variation in seedling performance, including trade-offs in seedling architecture and resource-use strategies. However, responses varied across species with different life-history strategies and depended on the driver in question, such that the abiotic and biotic effects were additive across species, rather than interactive. Edge-induced abiotic variation modified seedling architecture of a shade-tolerant species, leading to more vertical rather than lateral growth at edges. Meanwhile, increased herbivory pressure resulted in a shift toward lower dry matter investment in leaves of a light-demanding species. Our results suggest that edge effects can drive rapid directional shifts in the performance and intraspecific traits of some woody plants from early ontogenetic stages, but most species in this study showed negligible phenotypic responses to edge effects. Moreover, species-specific responses suggest the importance of interspecific differences modulating the degree of trait plasticity, implying the need to incorporate individual-level responses when understanding the impact of forest fragmentation on plant communities.
Date made available16 Jan 2021
PublisherDryad Digital Repository

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