Differences in growth patterns between co-occurring forest and savanna trees affect the forest–savanna boundary
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- 1Patterns of growth, activity and renewal of stems and branches are primary determinants of ecosystem function and strongly influence net primary productivity, water and energy balance. Here we compare patterns of leaf phenology, stem radial growth and branch growth of co-occurring savanna and forest trees in the Cerrado region of central Brazil to gain insight into the influence of these parameters in forest–savanna boundary dynamics. We hypothesized that forest species would have higher radial growth rates but later leaf flush than savanna species.
- 2We studied 12 congeneric species pairs, each containing one savanna species and one forest species. All individuals were growing in savanna conditions under full sun. We measured specific leaf area (SLA), light-saturated photosynthesis and monthly increments in stem circumference, branch length, leaf flush and leaf fall.
- 3Relative to savanna species, forest species had 68% higher diameter growth rates, 38% higher SLA, and displayed a greater crown area for a given basal area. Across species, radial growth was positively correlated with SLA (r2 = 0·31), but not with CO2 assimilation.
- 4Peak leaf production of savanna species was in the late dry season, 1 month earlier than for forest species, which suggests a strategy to avoid nutrient losses during leaf expansion due to herbivory or leaching. However, savanna and forest species did not differ in annual branch growth, number of leaves produced per branch, or in timing of leaf fall.
- 5Radial growth was tightly coupled to monthly rainfall in forest species whereas the growth of savanna species ceased before the end of the wet season. The cessation of above-ground growth at a time of active photosynthesis may reflect a shift in allocation to roots and reserves.
- 6These results contribute to recent studies showing that savanna and forest species represent different functional types and that despite the limiting resources in savanna environments, forest trees that invade the savanna tend to present higher growth rates and larger and denser crowns, which enhance shading and could promote changes in equilibrium of forest–savanna boundaries.