1. Plant height is a central part of plant ecological strategy. It is strongly correlated with life span, seed mass and time to maturity, and is a major determinant of a species’ ability to compete for light. Plant height is also related to critical ecosystem variables such as animal diversity and carbon storage capacity. However, remarkably little is known about global patterns in plant height. Here, we use maximum height data for 7084 plant Species × Site combinations to provide the first global, cross-species quantification of the latitudinal gradient in plant height.
2. The mean maximum height of species growing within 15° of the equator (7.8 m) was 29 times greater than the height of species between 60° and 75° N (27 cm), and 31 times greater than the height of species between 45° and 60° S (25 cm). There was no evidence that the latitudinal gradient in plant height was different in the northern hemisphere than in the southern hemisphere (P = 0.29). A 2.4-fold drop in plant height at the edge of the tropics (P = 0.006) supports the idea that there might be a switch in plant strategy between temperate and tropical zones.
3. We investigated 22 environmental variables to determine which factors underlie the latitudinal gradient in plant height. We found that species with a wide range of height strategies were present in cold, dry, low productivity systems, but there was a noticeable lack of very short species in wetter, warmer, more productive sites. Variables that capture information about growing conditions during the harsh times of the year were relatively poor predictors of height. The best model for global patterns in plant height included only one term: precipitation in the wettest month (R2 = 0.256).
4. Synthesis. We found a remarkably steep relationship between latitude and height, indicating a major difference in plant strategy between high and low latitude systems. We also provide new, surprising information about the correlations between plant height and environmental variables.