Ecophysiological Traits Associated with Drought in Mediterranean Tree Seedlings: Individual Responses versus Interspecific Trends in Eleven Species




Abstract: Species differ regarding their drought tolerance and individuals of a given species can modify their morphology and physiology in response to drought. However, since evolutionary and ecological selective pressures differ, individual and interspecific responses to drought might not match. We determined summer survival and a number of ecophysiological variables in two factorial experiments with seedlings of eleven tree species present in Mediterranean ecosystems, grown under slowly imposed water stress and control conditions. Plants experiencing drought exhibited reduced growth, low specific leaf area, chlorophyll content, and photosynthetic rate when compared to the controls, and species-specific drought tolerance was associated with an analogous set of trait values. However, while species with high leaf area ratio and shoot-root ratio exhibited greater drought tolerance, drought induced the reversed response within species. Contrary to expectations, water use efficiency was lower in drought-tolerant species and decreased in water-stressed individuals compared to the control plants. There was a distinctive phylogenetic signal in the functional grouping of species, with oaks, pines, and other genera being clearly different from each other in their drought tolerance and in their functional responses to drought. However, all relationships between ecophysiological variables and drought tolerance were significant after accounting for phylogenetic effects, with the exception of the relationship between drought tolerance and photochemical efficiency. Our results show that drought tolerance is not achieved by a single combination of trait values, and that even though evolutionary processes and individual responses tend to render similar results in terms of functional traits associated with drought, they do not necessarily match.