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Long-term increases in tropical flowering activity across growth forms in response to rising CO2 and climate change

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Abstract

Mounting evidence suggests that anthropogenic global change is altering plant species composition in tropical forests. Fewer studies, however, have focused on long-term trends in reproductive activity, in part because of the lack of data from tropical sites. Here, we analyze a 28-year record of tropical flower phenology in response to anthropogenic climate and atmospheric change. We show that a multidecadal increase in flower activity is most strongly associated with rising atmospheric CO2 concentrations using yearly aggregated data. Compared to significant climatic factors, CO2 had on average an approximately three-, four-, or fivefold stronger effect than rainfall, solar radiation, and the Multivariate ENSO Index, respectively. Peaks in flower activity were associated with greater solar radiation and lower rainfall during El Niño years. The effect of atmospheric CO2 on flowering has diminished over the most recent decade for lianas and canopy trees, whereas flowering of midstory trees and shrub species continued to increase with rising CO2. Increases in flowering were accompanied by a lengthening of flowering duration for canopy and midstory trees. Understory treelets did not show increases in flowering but did show increases in duration. Given that atmospheric CO2 will likely continue to climb over the next century, a long-term increase in flowering activity may persist in some growth forms until checked by nutrient limitation or by climate change through rising temperatures, increasing drought frequency and/or increasing cloudiness and reduced insolation.

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