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Keywords:

  • community structure;
  • elevational gradient;
  • environmental filtering;
  • functional traits;
  • intraspecific variation;
  • leaf nitrogen;
  • LMA ;
  • meta-analysis;
  • phenotypic plasticity;
  • plants

Summary

  1. Spatial variation in filters imposed by the abiotic environment causes variation in functional traits within and among plant species. This is abundantly clear for plant species along elevational gradients, where parallel abiotic selection pressures give rise to predictable variation in leaf phenotypes among ecosystems. Understanding the factors responsible for such patterns may provide insight into the current and future drivers of biodiversity, local community structure and ecosystem function.
  2. In order to explore patterns in trait variation along elevational gradients, we conducted a meta-analysis of published observational studies that measured three key leaf functional traits that are associated with axes of variation in both resource competition and stress tolerance: leaf mass:area ratio (LMA), leaf nitrogen content per unit mass (Nmass) and N content per unit area (Narea). To examine whether there may be evidence for a genetic basis underlying the trait variation, we conducted a review of published results from common garden experiments that measured the same leaf traits.
  3. Within studies, LMA and Narea tended to decrease with mean annual temperature (MAT) along elevational gradients, while Nmass did not vary systematically with MAT. Correlations among pairs of traits varied significantly with MAT: LMA was most strongly correlated with Nmass and Narea at high-elevation sites with relatively lower MAT. The strengths of the relationships were equal or greater within species relative to the relationships among species, suggesting parallel evolutionary dynamics along elevational gradients among disparate biomes. Evidence from common garden studies further suggests that there is an underlying genetic basis to the functional trait variation that we documented along elevational gradients.
  4. Taken together, these results indicate that environmental filtering both selects locally adapted genotypes within plant species and constrains species to elevational ranges based on their ranges of potential leaf trait values. If individual phenotypes are filtered from populations in the same way that species are filtered from regional species pools, changing climate may affect both the species and functional trait composition of plant communities.