Specific leaf area responses to environmental gradients through space and time

John Dwyer, Richard Hobbs, M.M. Mayfield

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    Plant communities can respond to environmental changes by altering their species composition and by individuals (within species) adjusting their physiology. These responses can be captured by measuring key functional traits among and within species along important environmental gradients. Some anthropogenic changes (such as fertilizer runoff ) are known to induce distinct community responses, but rarely have responses across natural and anthropogenic gradients been compared in the same system. In this study, we used comprehensive specific leaf area (SLA) data from a diverse Australian annual plant system to examine how individual species and whole communities respond to natural and anthropogenic gradients, and to climatically different growing seasons. We also investigated the influence of different leaf-sampling strategies on community-level results. Many species had similar mean SLA values but differed in SLA responses to spatial and temporal environmental variation. At the community scale, we identified distinct SLA responses to natural and anthropogenic gradients. Along anthropogenic gradients, increased mean SLA, coupled with SLA convergence, revealed evidence of competitive exclusion. This was further supported by the dominance of species turnover (vs. intraspecific variation) along these gradients. We also revealed strong temporal changes in SLA distributions in response to increasing growingseason precipitation. These climate-driven changes highlight differences among co-occurring species in their adaptive capacity to exploit abundant water resources during favorable seasons, differences that are likely to be important for species coexistence in this system. In relation to leaf-sampling strategies, we found that using leaves from a climatically different growing season can lead to misleading conclusions at the community scale. © 2014 by the Ecological Society of America.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)399-410
    Number of pages12
    Issue number2
    Publication statusPublished - Feb 2014

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