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Keywords:

  • phenotypic plasticity;
  • photosynthesis;
  • root porosity;
  • root : shoot ratio;
  • source–sink dynamics;
  • specific leaf area;
  • stable carbon isotope;
  • Vaccinium elliottii

Summary

  • Species that exhibit adaptive plasticity alter their phenotypes in response to environmental conditions, thereby maximizing fitness in heterogeneous landscapes. However, under demographic source–sink dynamics, selection should favor traits that enhance fitness in the source habitat at the expense of fitness in the marginal habitat. Consistent with source–sink dynamics, the perennial blueberry, Vaccinium elliottii (Ericaceae), shows substantially higher fitness and population sizes in dry upland forests than in flood-prone bottomland forests, and asymmetrical gene flow occurs from upland populations into bottomland populations. Here, we examined whether this species expresses plasticity to these distinct environments despite source–sink dynamics.
  • We assessed phenotypic responses to a complex environmental gradient in the field and to water stress in the glasshouse.
  • Contrary to expectations, V. elliottii exhibited a high degree of plasticity in foliar and root traits (specific leaf area, carbon isotope ratios, foliar nitrogen content, root : shoot ratio, root porosity and root architecture).
  • We propose that plasticity can be maintained in source–sink systems if it is favored within the source habitat and/or a phylogenetic artifact that is not costly. Additionally, plasticity could be advantageous if habitat-based differences in fitness result from incipient niche expansion. Our results illuminate the importance of evaluating phenotypic traits and fitness components across heterogeneous landscapes.