Adaptive differentiation of traits related to resource use in a desert annual along a resource gradient



  • Plant resource-use traits are generally hypothesized to be adaptively differentiated for populations distributed along resource gradients. Although nutrient limitations are expected to select for resource-conservative strategies, water limitations may select for either resource-conservative or -acquisitive strategies. We test whether population differentiation reflects local adaptation for traits associated with resource-use strategies in a desert annual (Helianthus anomalus) distributed along a gradient of positively covarying water and nutrient availability.
  • We compared quantitative trait variation (QST) with neutral genetic differentiation (FST), in a common garden glasshouse study, for leaf economics spectrum (LES) and related traits: photosynthesis (Amass, Aarea), leaf nitrogen (Nmass, Narea), leaf lifetime (LL), leaf mass per area (LMA), leaf water content (LWC), water-use efficiency (WUE, estimated as δ13C) and days to first flower (DFF).
  • QSTFST differences support adaptive differentiation for Amass, Nmass, Narea, LWC and DFF. The trait combinations associated with drier and lower fertility sites represent correlated trait evolution consistent with the more resource-acquisitive end of the LES. There was no evidence for adaptive differentiation for Aarea, LMA and WUE.
  • These results demonstrate that hot dry environments can selectively favor correlated evolution of traits contributing to a resource-acquisitive and earlier reproduction ‘escape’ strategy, despite lower fertility.