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Big eucalypts grow more slowly in a warm climate: evidence of an interaction between tree size and temperature

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Abstract

Large trees are critical components of forest ecosystems, but are declining in many forests worldwide. We predicted that growth of large trees is more vulnerable than that of small trees to high temperatures, because respiration and tissue maintenance costs increase with temperature more rapidly than does photosynthesis and these costs may be disproportionately greater in large trees. Using 5 00 000 measurements of eucalypt growth across temperate Australia, we found that high temperatures do appear to impose a larger growth penalty on large trees than on small ones. Average stem diameter growth rates at 21 °C compared with 11 °C mean annual temperature were 57% lower for large trees (58 cm stem diameter), but only 29% lower for small trees (18 cm diameter). While our results are consistent with an impaired carbon budget for large trees at warmer sites, we cannot discount causes such as hydraulic stress. We conclude that slower growth rates will impede recovery from extreme events, exacerbating the effects of higher temperatures, increased drought stress and more frequent fire on the tall eucalypt forests of southern Australia.

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