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Leaf functional trait variation in a humid temperate forest, and relationships with juvenile tree light requirements

The species-rich arborescent assemblages of humid tropical forests encompass much of the known range of the leaf economics spectrum, often including >20-fold variation in leaf lifespan. This suite of traits underpins a life-history continuum from fast-growing pioneers to slow-growing shade-tolerant species. Less is known about the range of leaf traits in humid temperate forests, and there are conflicting reports about relationships of these traits with the light requirements of temperate evergreen angiosperms. Here I quantify the range of leaf functional traits in a New Zealand temperate evergreen forest, and relationships of these traits with light requirements of juvenile trees and shrubs. Foliage turnover of saplings of 19 evergreen angiosperms growing beneath gaps (12–29% canopy openness) and in understories (1.2–2.9%) was measured over 12 months. Dry mass per area (LMA), dry matter content, thickness, density and nitrogen content (N) of leaves were also measured. Species minimum light requirements were indexed as the 10th percentile of the distribution of saplings in relation to canopy openness. Interspecific variation of leaf lifespan was ∼6-fold in gaps (0.6 to 3.8 yrs), and ∼11-fold in the understorey (0.7 to 7.7 yrs). Six small tree and shrub species are effectively leaf-exchangers, with leaf lifespans of c.1 year in gaps—albeit usually longer in the shade. Interspecific variation in other leaf traits was 2.5 to 4-fold. Lifespans and LMA of both sun and shade leaves were negatively correlated with species light requirements i.e., positively correlated with shade tolerance. However, light environment (gap vs shade) explained about the same amount of variation in LMA as species’ identity did. Species light requirements were not significantly correlated with leaf N, dry matter content, density or thickness—except for a marginally significant correlation with dry matter content of shade leaves. Species light requirements were thus less consistently related to leaf structural traits than appears to be the case in humid tropical forests. Whereas the wide interspecific variation in leaf economic traits of tropical rainforest species outweighs plastic response to light availability, temperate evergreen woody angiosperms appear to occupy a narrower range of the leaf economic spectrum. Standardization of the light environments in which LMA is measured is vital in comparative studies of humid temperate forest evergreens, because of countergradient responses of this trait to light, and because of the relative magnitudes of plastic and interspecific variation in LMA in these forests.
Journal Article
Type of thesis
Lusk, C. H. (2019). Leaf functional trait variation in a humid temperate forest, and relationships with juvenile tree light requirements. PEERJ, 7. https://doi.org/10.7717/peerj.6855
© 2019 the author. This article is published under a Creative Commons CC-BY 4.0 licence.