Ecological and evolutionary lability of plant traits affecting carbon and nutrient cycling



  1. Efforts to understand the effects of plant traits on carbon and nutrient cycling have recently focused on species variation and the potential for species data to improve predictions of past, present and future variation in ecosystems. However, the evolutionary lability of relevant traits among closely related species and the extent of intraspecific variation warrant further consideration.
  2. Here, we examine interspecific and intraspecific variation in leaf N, LMA, root N and SRL at multiple scales, using Helianthus as a representative study system.
  3. Substantial evolutionary lability of traits is demonstrated by interspecific variation in phylogenetically explicit analyses of closely related Helianthus species, and population differentiation of wild H. anomalus and cultivated H. annuus.
  4. Intraspecific variation in leaf N and LMA, including genetic, environmental and ontogenetic responses, demonstrates that trait values for a single species can encompass a surprisingly large portion of the range encompassed by species in the leaf economics spectrum.
  5. Synthesis. We recommend using data from selected natural populations to model effects of leaf N and LMA on decomposition, while using data from common garden experiments to determine evolutionary lability and thus inform potential for evolutionary change. If the high evolutionary lability of traits demonstrated for Helianthus is found for other important genera, this would suggest that these key ecophysiological traits are likely to respond to the selective pressures of global climate and land-use change.