Phylogenetic conservatism in plant phenology



  1. Phenological events – defined points in the life cycle of a plant or animal – have been regarded as highly plastic traits, reflecting flexible responses to various environmental cues.
  2. The ability of a species to track, via shifts in phenological events, the abiotic environment through time might dictate its vulnerability to future climate change. Understanding the predictors and drivers of phenological change is therefore critical.
  3. Here, we evaluated evidence for phylogenetic conservatism – the tendency for closely related species to share similar ecological and biological attributes – in phenological traits across flowering plants. We aggregated published and unpublished data on timing of first flower and first leaf, encompassing ˜4000 species at 23 sites across the Northern Hemisphere. We reconstructed the phylogeny for the set of included species, first, using the software program Phylomatic, and second, from DNA data. We then quantified phylogenetic conservatism in plant phenology within and across sites.
  4. We show that more closely related species tend to flower and leaf at similar times. By contrasting mean flowering times within and across sites, however, we illustrate that it is not the time of year that is conserved, but rather the phenological responses to a common set of abiotic cues.
  5. Our findings suggest that species cannot be treated as statistically independent when modelling phenological responses.
  6. Synthesis. Closely related species tend to resemble each other in the timing of their life-history events, a likely product of evolutionarily conserved responses to environmental cues. The search for the underlying drivers of phenology must therefore account for species' shared evolutionary histories.