Low leaf-level response to light and nutrients in Mediterranean evergreen oaks: a conservative resource-use strategy?

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Abstract

We have explored leaf-level plastic response to light and nutrients of Quercus ilex and Q. coccifera, two closely related Mediterranean evergreen sclerophylls, in a factorial experiment with seedlings. Leaf phenotypic plasticity, assessed by a relative index (PI = (maximum value - minimum)/maximum) in combination with the significance of the difference among means, was studied in 37 morphological and physiological variables. Light had significant effects on most variables relating to photosynthetic pigments, chlorophyll fluorescence and gas exchange, whereas nutrient treatment had a significant effect in only 10% of the variables. Chlorophyll content was higher in the shade whereas carotenoid content and nonphotochemical quenching increased with light. Nutrient limitations increased the xanthophyll-cycle pool but only at high light intensities, and the same interaction between light and nutrients was observed for lutein. Predawn photochemical efficiency of PSII was not affected by either light or nutrients, although midday photochemical efficiency of PSII was lower at high light intensities. Photosynthetic light compensation point and dark respiration on an area basis decreased with light, but photosynthetic capacity on a dry mass basis and photochemical quenching were higher in low light, which translated into a higher nitrogen use efficiency in the shade. We expected Q. ilex, the species of the widest ecological distribution, to be more plastic than Q. coccifera, but differences were minor: Q. ilex exhibited a significant response to light in 13% more of the variables than Q. coccifera, but mean PI was very similar in the two species. Both species tolerated full sunlight and moderate shade, but exhibited a reduced capacity to enhance photosynthetic utilization of high irradiance. When compared with evergreen shrubs from the tropical rainforest, leaf responsiveness of the two evergreen oaks was low. We suggest that the low leaf-level responsiveness found here is part of a conservative resource use strategy, which seems to be adaptive for evergreen woody plants in Mediterranean-type ecosystems.

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