skip to main content

Title: Trait velocities reveal that mortality has driven widespread coordinated shifts in forest hydraulic trait composition

Understanding the driving mechanisms behind existing patterns of vegetation hydraulic traits and community trait diversity is critical for advancing predictions of the terrestrial carbon cycle because hydraulic traits affect both ecosystem and Earth system responses to changing water availability. Here, we leverage an extensive trait database and a long-term continental forest plot network to map changes in community trait distributions and quantify “trait velocities” (the rate of change in community-weighted traits) for different regions and different forest types across the United States from 2000 to the present. We show that diversity in hydraulic traits and photosynthetic characteristics is more related to local water availability than overall species diversity. Finally, we find evidence for coordinated shifts toward communities with more drought-tolerant traits driven by tree mortality, but the magnitude of responses differs depending on forest type. The hydraulic trait distribution maps provide a publicly available platform to fundamentally advance understanding of community trait change in response to climate change and predictive abilities of mechanistic vegetation models.

more » « less
Award ID(s):
1711243 1714972 2003205
Author(s) / Creator(s):
; ; ;
Publisher / Repository:
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
Date Published:
Journal Name:
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
Page Range / eLocation ID:
p. 8532-8538
Medium: X
Sponsoring Org:
National Science Foundation
More Like this
  1. Understanding how plant communities of the past have responded to disturbance events can provide valuable insights when managing our natural resources and assessing human impacts on ecosystems. The geologic record has the potential to reflect these responses through the analysis of functional traits, which relate directly to plant function and ecosystem strategy. There is currently little evidence of how functional traits measurable in fossil leaves vary across succession in different forest types. Because of this, there is a limited ability to identify disturbance as the primary driver of vegetation change within the fossil record. To improve this ability, this study analyzes the carbon stable isotopic composition (δ 13C) of bulk organic matter sampled at the community-scale across successional gradients in a temperate deciduous forest (North Carolina, USA) and compares them against values from a previous study across succession in a tropical evergreen forest (Malaysian Borneo). Leaf δ13C is representative of a plant's water use efficiency (WUE), an important axis of ecological strategy representing the carbon assimilated per water lost in a plant during photosynthesis. Leaf δ13C as a functional trait has the advantage that it is often preserved during leaf fossilization and, integrated across a plant community, can be informative about prevalent ecological strategies, functional diversity , and community assembly dynamics. In Borneo, the community-weighted mean of leaf δ13C to be highest in early-succession plots, indicative of a higher WUE in plant communities closely following a disturbance event. Old growth plots were found to have a lower δ13C, and thus a more conservative WUE. This study will further investigate if this trend is followed within temperate forests, which is important as many mid-late Cenozoic plant assemblages come from what would have been temperate regions. Developing a method of identifying disturbances within the geologic record, will improve the ability to discern drivers of plant community change in the past. This improved knowledge will help guide management decisions across a range of ecosystems. 
    more » « less
  2. Abstract

    Forest leaf area has enormous leverage on the carbon cycle because it mediates both forest productivity and resilience to climate extremes. Despite widespread evidence that trees are capable of adjusting to changes in environment across both space and time through modifying carbon allocation to leaves, many vegetation models use fixed carbon allocation schemes independent of environment, which introduces large uncertainties into predictions of future forest responses to atmospheric CO2fertilization and anthropogenic climate change. Here, we develop an optimization‐based model, whereby tree carbon allocation to leaves is an emergent property of environment and plant hydraulic traits. Using a combination of meta‐analysis, observational datasets, and model predictions, we find strong evidence that optimal hydraulic–carbon coupling explains observed patterns in leaf allocation across large environmental and CO2concentration gradients. Furthermore, testing the sensitivity of leaf allocation strategy to a diversity in hydraulic and economic spectrum physiological traits, we show that plant hydraulic traits in particular have an enormous impact on the global change response of forest leaf area. Our results provide a rigorous theoretical underpinning for improving carbon cycle predictions through advancing model predictions of leaf area, and underscore that tree‐level carbon allocation to leaves should be derived from first principles using mechanistic plant hydraulic processes in the next generation of vegetation models.

    more » « less
  3. Scaling from individuals or species to ecosystems is a fundamental challenge of modern ecology and understanding tropical forest response to drought is a key challenge of predicting responses to global climate change. We here synthesize our developing understanding of these twin challenges by examining individual and ecosystem responses to the 2015 El Niño drought at two sites in the central Amazon of Brazil, near Manaus and Santarem, which span a precipitation gradient from moderate (Manaus) to long (Santarem) dry seasons. We will focus on how ecosystem water and carbon cycling, measured by eddy flux towers, emerges from individual trait-based responses, including photosynthetic responses of individual leaves, and water cycle responses in terms of stomatal conductance and hydraulic xylem embolism resistance. We found the Santarem forest (with long dry seasons) responded strongly to drought: sensible heat values significantly increased and evapotranspiration decreased. Consistent with this, we also observed reductions in photosynthetic activity and ecosystem respiration, showing levels of stress not seen in the nearly two decades since measurements started at this site. Forests at the Manaus site showed significant, however, less consistent reductions in water and carbon exchange and a more pronounced water deficit. We report an apparent community level forest composition selecting for assemblies of traits and taxa manifest of higher drought tolerance at Santarem, compared to the Manaus forest (short dry seasons) and other forest sites across Amazonia. These results suggest that we may be able to use community trait compositions (as selected by past climate conditions) and environmental threshold values (e.g. cumulative rainfall, atmospheric moisture and radiation) as to help forecast ecosystem responses to future climate change. 
    more » « less
  4. Abstract

    Plant functional traits provide a link in process‐based vegetation models between plant‐level physiology and ecosystem‐level responses. Recent advances in physiological understanding and computational efficiency have allowed for the incorporation of plant hydraulic processes in large‐scale vegetation models. However, a more mechanistic representation of water limitation that determines ecosystem responses to plant water stress necessitates a re‐evaluation of trait‐based constraints for plant carbon allocation, particularly allocation to leaf area. In this review, we examine model representations of plant allocation to leaves, which is often empirically set by plant functional type‐specific allometric relationships. We analyze the evolution of the representation of leaf allocation in models of different scales and complexities. We show the impacts of leaf allocation strategy on plant carbon uptake in the context of recent advancements in modeling hydraulic processes. Finally, we posit that deriving allometry from first principles using mechanistic hydraulic processes is possible and should become standard practice, rather than using prescribed allometries. The representation of allocation as an emergent property of scarce resource constraints is likely to be critical to representing how global change processes impact future ecosystem dynamics and carbon fluxes and may reduce the number of poorly constrained parameters in vegetation models.

    more » « less
  5. Abstract

    Understanding the drivers of trait selection is critical for resolving community assembly processes. Here, we test the importance of environmental filtering and trait covariance for structuring the functional traits of understory herbaceous communities distributed along a natural environmental resource gradient that varied in soil moisture, temperature, and nitrogen availability, produced by different topographic positions in the southern Appalachian Mountains.

    To uncover potential differences in community‐level trait responses to the resource gradient, we quantified the averages and variances of both abundance‐weighted and unweighted values for six functional traits (vegetative height, leaf area, specific leaf area, leaf dry matter content, leaf nitrogen, and leaf δ13C) using 15 individuals of each of the 108 species of understory herbs found at two sites in the southern Appalachians of western North Carolina, USA.

    Environmental variables were better predictors of weighted than unweighted community‐level average trait values for all but height and leaf N, indicating strong environmental filtering of plant abundance. Community‐level variance patterns also showed increased convergence of abundance‐weighted traits as resource limitation became more severe.

    Functional trait covariance patterns based on weighted averages were uniform across the gradient, whereas coordination based on unweighted averages was inconsistent and varied with environmental context. In line with these results, structural equation modeling revealed that unweighted community‐average traits responded directly to local environmental variation, whereas weighted community‐average traits responded indirectly to local environmental variation through trait coordination.

    Our finding that trait coordination is more important for explaining the distribution of weighted than unweighted average trait values along the gradient indicates that environmental filtering acts on multiple traits simultaneously, with abundant species possessing more favorable combinations of traits for maximizing fitness in a given environment.

    more » « less