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Keywords:

  • Acacia;
  • Australia;
  • phenotypic plasticity;
  • range size;
  • relative growth rate;
  • seedling;
  • specific leaf area;
  • water availability

Abstract

Aim  The degree to which eco-physiological traits critical to seedling establishment are related to differences in geographic range size among species is not well understood. Here, we first tested the idea that seedling eco-physiological attributes associated with establishment differ between narrowly distributed and geographically widespread plant species. Secondly, we tested the notion that species occupying wide geographic ranges have greater phenotypic plasticity in response to the environment than contrasted species with more restricted distributions.

Location  Eastern Australia.

Methods  We compared five pairs of geographically restricted and widespread Acacia species grown under glasshouse conditions for differences in seedling relative growth rate and associated allocational, morphological and physiological traits. We then examined whether widespread species displayed greater phenotypic plasticity in these traits than narrowly distributed species in response to changes in soil water availability.

Results  Neither relative growth rate nor any measure of biomass accumulation or allocation differed significantly between seedlings of narrowly distributed and widespread species. In addition, the plasticity of biomass allocation was not greater in widespread species. However, the leaflets of widespread species had higher photosynthetic capacity and greater plasticity of water use efficiency than the leaflets of narrowly distributed species.

Main conclusions  We demonstrated fundamental differences in the physiology and plasticity of leaflets of widespread and narrowly distributed species. The greater plasticity of these seedling leaflet traits may allow widespread Acacia species to utilize a wider range of environmental conditions in relation to soil moisture than restricted Acacia species. However, we did not find corresponding differences in mean or plasticity of seedling growth and allocational traits. In general, we suggest that relationships between rarity and species traits are both context and taxon specific.