Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Independence of leaf and stem traits

Multivariate relationships between leaf and stem traits for 600+ Neotropical tree species. 
Before reading Baraloto et al. in Ecology Letters, I think the best assumption for how leaves and stems correspond is that plants with high-activity leaves (low tissue density, high N concentrations, low leaf longevity) would be associated with low density wood. Pioneer species are typically thought of this way--think Cecropia. Essentially cheap leaves come with cheap stems. Late-successional species typically have low-activity leaves and high wood density.

Yet, if you think about it a bit more, pines and firs have low wood density, yet their leaves live a long time. So what is the pattern? Do leaf and stem traits correlate or are they independent.

Baraloto et al. compared key leaf and stem functional traits for over 600 tropical tree species. The authors convincingly show that leaf and stem economic axes are orthogonal. Species with low leaf tissue density and high foliar nitrogen concentrations are equally as likely to be associated with high stem density as low. In short, cheap leaves can be born on expensive stems. 

The factorial ecology of leaf and stem economics has still to be worked out and the obvious next question is to reexamine patterns with roots, but the paper is an excellent example of the power of sampling large numbers of species and distilling data to a clear, simple message.

Baraloto, C., C. E. Timothy Paine, L. Poorter, J. Beauchene, D. Bonal, A. M. Domenach, B. Herault, S. Patino, J. C. Roggy, and J. Chave. 2010. Decoupled leaf and stem economics in rain forest trees. Ecology Letters 13:1338-1347.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Comparing nutrient availability with traitscapes

An overlay of foliar N concentrations and nitrogen isotop ratios from the Konza flora (black) to a global dataset (gray).

One of the key questions for understanding plant community assembly is to understand the environments that species inhabit--not just the dominant species, but the hundreds of species that are only occasionally or rarely seen to the casual observer. Do the rare species mirror the more abundant species in their traits? Or are they rare because they are built for different environments?

At Konza Prairie, there are over 500 herbaceous species. Over last 2 years we measured the leaves of over 400 species at Konza. One of the interesting patterns was examining the relationships between the leaf N concentrations and the foliar N isotopes. Together these two best reflect the N availability of the environment the plant inhabits. High N concentrations and high del15N generally mean that the plant is growing in an environment with high N availability.

Konza is considered a strongly N-limited ecosystem. The responses of aboveground productivity to N addition are some of the highest in North American grasslands--ANPP triples with N addition. Given this, at Konza, one thing that was surprising was how many species had really high N concentrations in their leaves. A fair number of species that didn't fix nitrogen had N concentrations over 40 mg g-1, or 4%. That's really high.

When you look at the flora as a whole, there were a lot of species that were found in high N availability sites. Edges of roads. Bison wallows. Places with high dung inputs. A lot of the diversity of Konza is likely maintained because of these high N availability sites.

When you look at Konza species by species the picture changes from one dominated by severe N limitation to one with a broad spectrum of N availability.  In fact, we could compare Konza to the rest of the world with a global dataset on foliar N and N isotopes. Not only do many of the species occupy high N availability sites at Konza, but the typical species at Konza actually occupies areas of higher N availability than the "rest of the world".

The analysis of traits across a broad portion of a flora--the community's traitscape--is not novel, but definitely an undersubscribed approach. As we build more global datasets and measure more and more species, a lot more insight to how communities are constructed and florae assembled will come into new light.