Intraspecific variation in traits and tree growth along an elevational gradient in a subtropical forest

A conspicuous feature of natural communities is that individuals within species exhibit broad variation in their phenotype. While the phenotypic differences among species are prominent and have received considerable attention in earlier studies, recent findings suggest that about 40% of the trait variation is found within species. How this intraspecific variation is related to underlying environmental gradients and ultimately linked to performance is an outstanding question in ecology and evolution. Here, we study six broadly distributed species across an elevational gradient in a subtropical forest. We focused on five functional traits reflecting plant functional differentiation in stem transport, leaf architecture, and leaf resource acquisition. We found that leaf thickness, leaf toughness, and specific leaf area generally varied with elevation, while wood density and leaf area exhibited constrained variation. Results on multivariate trait axes also showed mixed evidence with the PC1 values (positively related to leaf toughness and negatively related to specific leaf area) shifting with elevation, while PC2 values (negatively related to wood density) did not change with elevation. We also found that, despite the important variation in some traits along the gradient, growth performance did not follow this same trend. This suggests that strong directional changes in traits along the gradient may result in similar levels of demographic performance. The results, therefore, challenge the simple expectation that a trait will correlate with a demographic rate. More nuanced approaches and additional mechanisms must be considered to advance understanding of the performance–trait relationships.

María Natalia Umaña & Nathan G. Swenson