[Truncated abstract] In south-western Australia a rare plant community occurs on shallow soils overlaying massive ironstone rock. These 'ironstone communities' are open shrublands, which are subject to extremes in drought and solar radiation and support many rare and endemic species. The restricted distribution of many of these species may be related to their high degree of specialisation to this harsh habitat and their inability to respond plastically to different environmental conditions. Indeed, earlier work has shown that ironstone Hakea species (Proteaceae) have a specialist root-system morphology investing mainly in deep roots, thereby increasing their chance of accessing cracks in the rock surface and obtaining water before the onset of summer drought. In this thesis I further examine aspects of specialisation and its possible consequences for species rarity using two ironstone Hakea species and comparing them with two of their widely distributed congeners. In the first experiment (Chapter 2) I explore inherent drought tolerance, independent of root-system morphology, as a further specialisation to the ironstone environment. All species were grown in sand in pots in a glasshouse for 7 months and then droughted for 5 weeks. There was no evidence that the ironstone species had a greater inherent drought tolerance than their common congeners. During drought all species maintained leaf water content of mature leaves by reducing stomatal conductance and osmotically adjusting, though ironstone species tended to OA (osmotic adjustment) more than common species. ... This suboptimal investment of resources may result in a lower competitive ability in shadier environments, and thus could partially explain their restricted distribution. In Chapter 4, I investigated the plasticity of root traits in response to levels of phosphorus supply. South-western Australian soils are phosphorus impoverished and phosphorus is well known to elicit plastic responses in root allocation and architecture. Ironstone species showed less plasticity in total root length, producing similar root length across P treatments, while common species showed an increase in root length with increasing [P]. Other root characteristics were similarly plastic in response to P treatment between species. However, when supplied with increasing [P], ironstone species invested an increasing proportion of roots in the bottom of pots while common species invested more in the top. This differential response in root allocation in response to P may reflect a fundamental trade-off between nutrient and water acquisition, with the ironstone species mainly foraging for water and investing in deeper roots, while the common species invest more in superficial roots to obtain nutrients. In conclusion, the rarity and restricted distribution of the ironstone Hakea species may be related to their specialist root-system morphology as well as a lowered phenotypic plasticity of functional traits. A reduction in plasticity may reduce their competitive ability outside their ironstone habitats, and thus contribute to the restricted distribution of these species. This may also be the case for other rock-outcrop endemics and more generally, for other rare plant species restricted to particular habitats where a lowered phenotypic plasticity in traits relevant to their particular habitat may contribute to their restricted distribution.
|Qualification||Doctor of Philosophy|
|Publication status||Unpublished - 2007|