Spatial and temporal variation in plant hydraulic traits and their relevance for climate change impacts on vegetation


  • William Anderegg was awarded the 2014 New Phytologist Tansley Medal for excellence in plant science. The medal is in recognition of William's outstanding contribution to research in plant science, at an early stage in his career, as presented in this article; see the Editorial by Lennon & Dolan, 205: 951–952.


Plant hydraulics mediate terrestrial woody plant productivity, influencing global water, carbon, and biogeochemical cycles, as well as ecosystem vulnerability to drought and climate change. While inter-specific differences in hydraulic traits are widely documented, intra-specific hydraulic variability is less well known and is important for predicting climate change impacts. Here, I present a conceptual framework for this intra-specific hydraulic trait variability, reviewing the mechanisms that drive variability and the consequences for vegetation response to climate change. I performed a meta-analysis on published studies (= 33) of intra-specific variation in a prominent hydraulic trait – water potential at which 50% stem conductivity is lost (P50) – and compared this variation to inter-specific variability within genera and plant functional types used by a dynamic global vegetation model. I found that intra-specific variability is of ecologically relevant magnitudes, equivalent to c. 33% of the inter-specific variability within a genus, and is larger in angiosperms than gymnosperms, although the limited number of studies highlights that more research is greatly needed. Furthermore, plant functional types were poorly situated to capture key differences in hydraulic traits across species, indicating a need to approach prediction of drought impacts from a trait-based, rather than functional type-based perspective.