Meta-analysis reveals profound responses of plant traits to glacial CO2 levels



A general understanding of the links between atmospheric CO2 concentration and the functioning of the terrestrial biosphere requires not only an understanding of plant trait responses to the ongoing transition to higher CO2 but also the legacy effects of past low CO2. An interesting question is whether the transition from current to higher CO2 can be thought of as a continuation of the past trajectory of low to current CO2 levels. Determining this trajectory requires quantifying the effect sizes of plant response to low CO2. We performed a meta-analysis of low CO2 growth experiments on 34 studies with 54 species. We quantified how plant traits vary at reduced CO2 levels and whether C3 versus C4 and woody versus herbaceous plant species respond differently. At low CO2, plant functioning changed drastically: on average across all species, a 50% reduction in current atmospheric CO2 reduced net photosynthesis by 38%; increased stomatal conductance by 60% and decreased intrinsic water use efficiency by 48%. Total plant dry biomass decreased by 47%, while specific leaf area increased by 17%. Plant types responded similarly: the only significant differences being no increase in SLA for C4 species and a 16% smaller decrease in biomass for woody C3 species at glacial CO2. Quantitative comparison of low CO2 effect sizes to those from high CO2 studies showed that the magnitude of response of stomatal conductance, water use efficiency and SLA to increased CO2 can be thought of as continued shifts along the same line. However, net photosynthesis and dry weight responses to low CO2 were greater in magnitude than to high CO2. Understanding the causes for this discrepancy can lead to a general understanding of the links between atmospheric CO2 and plant responses with relevance for both the past and the future.