skip to main content


Title: Microanatomical traits track climate gradients for a dominant C4 grass species across the Great Plains, USA
Abstract Background and Aims Andropogon gerardii is a highly productive C4 grass species with a large geographic range throughout the North American Great Plains, a biome characterized by a variable temperate climate. Plant traits are often invoked to explain growth rates and competitive abilities within broad climate gradients. For example, plant competition models typically predict that species with large geographic ranges benefit from variation in traits underlying high growth potential. Here, we examined the relationship between climate variability and leaf-level traits in A. gerardii, emphasizing how leaf-level microanatomical traits serve as a mechanism that may underlie variation in commonly measured traits, such as specific leaf area (SLA). Methods Andropogon gerardii leaves were collected in August 2017 from Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve (MN), Konza Prairie Biological Station (KS), Platte River Prairie (NE) and Rocky Mountain Research Station (SD). Leaves from ten individuals from each site were trimmed, stained and prepared for fluorescent confocal microscopy to analyse internal leaf anatomy. Leaf microanatomical data were compared with historical and growing season climate data extracted from PRISM spatial climate models. Key Results Microanatomical traits displayed large variation within and across sites. According to AICc (Akaike’s information criterion adjusted for small sample sizes) selection scores, the interaction of mean precipitation and temperature for the 2017 growing season was the best predictor of variability for the anatomical and morphological traits measured here. Mesophyll area and bundle sheath thickness were directly correlated with mean temperature (annual and growing season). Tissues related to water-use strategies, such as bulliform cell and xylem area, were significantly correlated with one another. Conclusions The results indicate that (1) microanatomical trait variation exists within this broadly distributed grass species, (2) microanatomical trait variability appears likely to impact leaf-level carbon and water use strategies, and (3) microanatomical trait values vary across climate gradients, and may underlie variation in traits measured at larger ecological scales.  more » « less
Award ID(s):
2025849
NSF-PAR ID:
10298605
Author(s) / Creator(s):
;
Date Published:
Journal Name:
Annals of Botany
Volume:
127
Issue:
4
ISSN:
0305-7364
Page Range / eLocation ID:
451 to 459
Format(s):
Medium: X
Sponsoring Org:
National Science Foundation
More Like this
  1. Abstract

    Dominant species can act as a biotic filter in structuring plant communities by constraining the establishment and survival of subordinate species. The effect of intraspecific trait variability of dominant species on the functional response of subordinate species, however, is not well understood.

    We quantified intraspecific variation in four functional traits of 26 subordinate species in an experimental grassland established with two population sources (i.e. cultivars and local ecotypes) of three dominant grasses (Sorghastrum nutans, Andropogon gerardiiandSchizachyrium scoparium) and three pools of subordinate species (each from one origin) within each of the dominant grass source treatments.

    Twenty of the 26 subordinate species exhibited intraspecific trait variability for one trait or more in response to dominant species population source, and variation among population sources of the dominant species was non‐random. Dominant grass population source affected intraspecific variability in functional traits of multiple subordinate species. Cultivar sources of the dominant grasses and some of the subordinate species that established with them had higher and generally more variable functional leaf area and leaf nitrogen content compared to local ecotypes of the dominant grasses and the subordinate species that established with them. Local ecotype sources of the dominant grasses increased leaf area based functional diversity of subordinate species.

    Synthesis.This study provides evidence that intraspecific trait variability in dominant species acts as a biotic filter to constrain niche availability and dimensionality affecting trait variation of subordinate species during community assembly.

     
    more » « less
  2. Excessive phosphorus (P) applications to croplands can contribute to eutrophication of surface waters through surface runoff and subsurface (leaching) losses. We analyzed leaching losses of total dissolved P (TDP) from no-till corn, hybrid poplar (Populus nigra X P. maximowiczii), switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), miscanthus (Miscanthus giganteus), native grasses, and restored prairie, all planted in 2008 on former cropland in Michigan, USA. All crops except corn (13 kg P ha−1 year−1) were grown without P fertilization. Biomass was harvested at the end of each growing season except for poplar. Soil water at 1.2 m depth was sampled weekly to biweekly for TDP determination during March–November 2009–2016 using tension lysimeters. Soil test P (0–25 cm depth) was measured every autumn. Soil water TDP concentrations were usually below levels where eutrophication of surface waters is frequently observed (> 0.02 mg L−1) but often higher than in deep groundwater or nearby streams and lakes. Rates of P leaching, estimated from measured concentrations and modeled drainage, did not differ statistically among cropping systems across years; 7-year cropping system means ranged from 0.035 to 0.072 kg P ha−1 year−1 with large interannual variation. Leached P was positively related to STP, which decreased over the 7 years in all systems. These results indicate that both P-fertilized and unfertilized cropping systems may leach legacy P from past cropland management. Experimental details The Biofuel Cropping System Experiment (BCSE) is located at the W.K. Kellogg Biological Station (KBS) (42.3956° N, 85.3749° W; elevation 288 m asl) in southwestern Michigan, USA. This site is a part of the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (www.glbrc.org) and is a Long-term Ecological Research site (www.lter.kbs.msu.edu). Soils are mesic Typic Hapludalfs developed on glacial outwash54 with high sand content (76% in the upper 150 cm) intermixed with silt-rich loess in the upper 50 cm55. The water table lies approximately 12–14 m below the surface. The climate is humid temperate with a mean annual air temperature of 9.1 °C and annual precipitation of 1005 mm, 511 mm of which falls between May and September (1981–2010)56,57. The BCSE was established as a randomized complete block design in 2008 on preexisting farmland. Prior to BCSE establishment, the field was used for grain crop and alfalfa (Medicago sativa L.) production for several decades. Between 2003 and 2007, the field received a total of ~ 300 kg P ha−1 as manure, and the southern half, which contains one of four replicate plots, received an additional 206 kg P ha−1 as inorganic fertilizer. The experimental design consists of five randomized blocks each containing one replicate plot (28 by 40 m) of 10 cropping systems (treatments) (Supplementary Fig. S1; also see Sanford et al.58). Block 5 is not included in the present study. Details on experimental design and site history are provided in Robertson and Hamilton57 and Gelfand et al.59. Leaching of P is analyzed in six of the cropping systems: (i) continuous no-till corn, (ii) switchgrass, (iii) miscanthus, (iv) a mixture of five species of native grasses, (v) a restored native prairie containing 18 plant species (Supplementary Table S1), and (vi) hybrid poplar. Agronomic management Phenological cameras and field observations indicated that the perennial herbaceous crops emerged each year between mid-April and mid-May. Corn was planted each year in early May. Herbaceous crops were harvested at the end of each growing season with the timing depending on weather: between October and November for corn and between November and December for herbaceous perennial crops. Corn stover was harvested shortly after corn grain, leaving approximately 10 cm height of stubble above the ground. The poplar was harvested only once, as the culmination of a 6-year rotation, in the winter of 2013–2014. Leaf emergence and senescence based on daily phenological images indicated the beginning and end of the poplar growing season, respectively, in each year. Application of inorganic fertilizers to the different crops followed a management approach typical for the region (Table 1). Corn was fertilized with 13 kg P ha−1 year−1 as starter fertilizer (N-P-K of 19-17-0) at the time of planting and an additional 33 kg P ha−1 year−1 was added as superphosphate in spring 2015. Corn also received N fertilizer around the time of planting and in mid-June at typical rates for the region (Table 1). No P fertilizer was applied to the perennial grassland or poplar systems (Table 1). All perennial grasses (except restored prairie) were provided 56 kg N ha−1 year−1 of N fertilizer in early summer between 2010 and 2016; an additional 77 kg N ha−1 was applied to miscanthus in 2009. Poplar was fertilized once with 157 kg N ha−1 in 2010 after the canopy had closed. Sampling of subsurface soil water and soil for P determination Subsurface soil water samples were collected beneath the root zone (1.2 m depth) using samplers installed at approximately 20 cm into the unconsolidated sand of 2Bt2 and 2E/Bt horizons (soils at the site are described in Crum and Collins54). Soil water was collected from two kinds of samplers: Prenart samplers constructed of Teflon and silica (http://www.prenart.dk/soil-water-samplers/) in replicate blocks 1 and 2 and Eijkelkamp ceramic samplers (http://www.eijkelkamp.com) in blocks 3 and 4 (Supplementary Fig. S1). The samplers were installed in 2008 at an angle using a hydraulic corer, with the sampling tubes buried underground within the plots and the sampler located about 9 m from the plot edge. There were no consistent differences in TDP concentrations between the two sampler types. Beginning in the 2009 growing season, subsurface soil water was sampled at weekly to biweekly intervals during non-frozen periods (April–November) by applying 50 kPa of vacuum to each sampler for 24 h, during which the extracted water was collected in glass bottles. Samples were filtered using different filter types (all 0.45 µm pore size) depending on the volume of leachate collected: 33-mm dia. cellulose acetate membrane filters when volumes were less than 50 mL; and 47-mm dia. Supor 450 polyethersulfone membrane filters for larger volumes. Total dissolved phosphorus (TDP) in water samples was analyzed by persulfate digestion of filtered samples to convert all phosphorus forms to soluble reactive phosphorus, followed by colorimetric analysis by long-pathlength spectrophotometry (UV-1800 Shimadzu, Japan) using the molybdate blue method60, for which the method detection limit was ~ 0.005 mg P L−1. Between 2009 and 2016, soil samples (0–25 cm depth) were collected each autumn from all plots for determination of soil test P (STP) by the Bray-1 method61, using as an extractant a dilute hydrochloric acid and ammonium fluoride solution, as is recommended for neutral to slightly acidic soils. The measured STP concentration in mg P kg−1 was converted to kg P ha−1 based on soil sampling depth and soil bulk density (mean, 1.5 g cm−3). Sampling of water samples from lakes, streams and wells for P determination In addition to chemistry of soil and subsurface soil water in the BCSE, waters from lakes, streams, and residential water supply wells were also sampled during 2009–2016 for TDP analysis using Supor 450 membrane filters and the same analytical method as for soil water. These water bodies are within 15 km of the study site, within a landscape mosaic of row crops, grasslands, deciduous forest, and wetlands, with some residential development (Supplementary Fig. S2, Supplementary Table S2). Details of land use and cover change in the vicinity of KBS are given in Hamilton et al.48, and patterns in nutrient concentrations in local surface waters are further discussed in Hamilton62. Leaching estimates, modeled drainage, and data analysis Leaching was estimated at daily time steps and summarized as total leaching on a crop-year basis, defined from the date of planting or leaf emergence in a given year to the day prior to planting or emergence in the following year. TDP concentrations (mg L−1) of subsurface soil water were linearly interpolated between sampling dates during non-freezing periods (April–November) and over non-sampling periods (December–March) based on the preceding November and subsequent April samples. Daily rates of TDP leaching (kg ha−1) were calculated by multiplying concentration (mg L−1) by drainage rates (m3 ha−1 day−1) modeled by the Systems Approach for Land Use Sustainability (SALUS) model, a crop growth model that is well calibrated for KBS soil and environmental conditions. SALUS simulates yield and environmental outcomes in response to weather, soil, management (planting dates, plant population, irrigation, N fertilizer application, and tillage), and genetics63. The SALUS water balance sub-model simulates surface runoff, saturated and unsaturated water flow, drainage, root water uptake, and evapotranspiration during growing and non-growing seasons63. The SALUS model has been used in studies of evapotranspiration48,51,64 and nutrient leaching20,65,66,67 from KBS soils, and its predictions of growing-season evapotranspiration are consistent with independent measurements based on growing-season soil water drawdown53 and evapotranspiration measured by eddy covariance68. Phosphorus leaching was assumed insignificant on days when SALUS predicted no drainage. Volume-weighted mean TDP concentrations in leachate for each crop-year and for the entire 7-year study period were calculated as the total dissolved P leaching flux (kg ha−1) divided by the total drainage (m3 ha−1). One-way ANOVA with time (crop-year) as the fixed factor was conducted to compare total annual drainage rates, P leaching rates, volume-weighted mean TDP concentrations, and maximum aboveground biomass among the cropping systems over all seven crop-years as well as with TDP concentrations from local lakes, streams, and groundwater wells. When a significant (α = 0.05) difference was detected among the groups, we used the Tukey honest significant difference (HSD) post-hoc test to make pairwise comparisons among the groups. In the case of maximum aboveground biomass, we used the Tukey–Kramer method to make pairwise comparisons among the groups because the absence of poplar data after the 2013 harvest resulted in unequal sample sizes. We also used the Tukey–Kramer method to compare the frequency distributions of TDP concentrations in all of the soil leachate samples with concentrations in lakes, streams, and groundwater wells, since each sample category had very different numbers of measurements. Individual spreadsheets in “data table_leaching_dissolved organic carbon and nitrogen.xls” 1.    annual precip_drainage 2.    biomass_corn, perennial grasses 3.    biomass_poplar 4.    annual N leaching _vol-wtd conc 5.    Summary_N leached 6.    annual DOC leachin_vol-wtd conc 7.    growing season length 8.    correlation_nh4 VS no3 9.    correlations_don VS no3_doc VS don Each spreadsheet is described below along with an explanation of variates. Note that ‘nan’ indicate data are missing or not available. First row indicates header; second row indicates units 1. Spreadsheet: annual precip_drainage Description: Precipitation measured from nearby Kellogg Biological Station (KBS) Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) Weather station, over 2009-2016 study period. Data shown in Figure 1; original data source for precipitation (https://lter.kbs.msu.edu/datatables/7). Drainage estimated from SALUS crop model. Note that drainage is percolation out of the root zone (0-125 cm). Annual precipitation and drainage values shown here are calculated for growing and non-growing crop periods. Variate    Description year    year of the observation crop    “corn” “switchgrass” “miscanthus” “nativegrass” “restored prairie” “poplar” precip_G    precipitation during growing period (milliMeter) precip_NG    precipitation during non-growing period (milliMeter) drainage_G    drainage during growing period (milliMeter) drainage_NG    drainage during non-growing period (milliMeter)      2. Spreadsheet: biomass_corn, perennial grasses Description: Maximum aboveground biomass measurements from corn, switchgrass, miscanthus, native grass and restored prairie plots in Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC) Biomass Cropping System Experiment (BCSE) during 2009-2015. Data shown in Figure 2.   Variate    Description year    year of the observation date    day of the observation (mm/dd/yyyy) crop    “corn” “switchgrass” “miscanthus” “nativegrass” “restored prairie” “poplar” replicate    each crop has four replicated plots, R1, R2, R3 and R4 station    stations (S1, S2 and S3) of samplings within the plot. For more details, refer to link (https://data.sustainability.glbrc.org/protocols/156) species    plant species that are rooted within the quadrat during the time of maximum biomass harvest. See protocol for more information, refer to link (http://lter.kbs.msu.edu/datatables/36) For maize biomass, grain and whole biomass reported in the paper (weed biomass or surface litter are excluded). Surface litter biomass not included in any crops; weed biomass not included in switchgrass and miscanthus, but included in grass mixture and prairie. fraction    Fraction of biomass biomass_plot    biomass per plot on dry-weight basis (Grams_Per_SquareMeter) biomass_ha    biomass (megaGrams_Per_Hectare) by multiplying column biomass per plot with 0.01 3. Spreadsheet: biomass_poplar Description: Maximum aboveground biomass measurements from poplar plots in Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC) Biomass Cropping System Experiment (BCSE) during 2009-2015. Data shown in Figure 2. Note that poplar biomass was estimated from crop growth curves until the poplar was harvested in the winter of 2013-14. Variate    Description year    year of the observation method    methods of poplar biomass sampling date    day of the observation (mm/dd/yyyy) replicate    each crop has four replicated plots, R1, R2, R3 and R4 diameter_at_ground    poplar diameter (milliMeter) at the ground diameter_at_15cm    poplar diameter (milliMeter) at 15 cm height biomass_tree    biomass per plot (Grams_Per_Tree) biomass_ha    biomass (megaGrams_Per_Hectare) by multiplying biomass per tree with 0.01 4. Spreadsheet: annual N leaching_vol-wtd conc Description: Annual leaching rate (kiloGrams_N_Per_Hectare) and volume-weighted mean N concentrations (milliGrams_N_Per_Liter) of nitrate (no3) and dissolved organic nitrogen (don) in the leachate samples collected from corn, switchgrass, miscanthus, native grass, restored prairie and poplar plots in Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC) Biomass Cropping System Experiment (BCSE) during 2009-2016. Data for nitrogen leached and volume-wtd mean N concentration shown in Figure 3a and Figure 3b, respectively. Note that ammonium (nh4) concentration were much lower and often undetectable (<0.07 milliGrams_N_Per_Liter). Also note that in 2009 and 2010 crop-years, data from some replicates are missing.    Variate    Description crop    “corn” “switchgrass” “miscanthus” “nativegrass” “restored prairie” “poplar” crop-year    year of the observation replicate    each crop has four replicated plots, R1, R2, R3 and R4 no3 leached    annual leaching rates of nitrate (kiloGrams_N_Per_Hectare) don leached    annual leaching rates of don (kiloGrams_N_Per_Hectare) vol-wtd no3 conc.    Volume-weighted mean no3 concentration (milliGrams_N_Per_Liter) vol-wtd don conc.    Volume-weighted mean don concentration (milliGrams_N_Per_Liter) 5. Spreadsheet: summary_N leached Description: Summary of total amount and forms of N leached (kiloGrams_N_Per_Hectare) and the percent of applied N lost to leaching over the seven years for corn, switchgrass, miscanthus, native grass, restored prairie and poplar plots in Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC) Biomass Cropping System Experiment (BCSE) during 2009-2016. Data for nitrogen amount leached shown in Figure 4a and percent of applied N lost shown in Figure 4b. Note the fraction of unleached N includes in harvest, accumulation in root biomass, soil organic matter or gaseous N emissions were not measured in the study. Variate    Description crop    “corn” “switchgrass” “miscanthus” “nativegrass” “restored prairie” “poplar” no3 leached    annual leaching rates of nitrate (kiloGrams_N_Per_Hectare) don leached    annual leaching rates of don (kiloGrams_N_Per_Hectare) N unleached    N unleached (kiloGrams_N_Per_Hectare) in other sources are not studied % of N applied N lost to leaching    % of N applied N lost to leaching 6. Spreadsheet: annual DOC leachin_vol-wtd conc Description: Annual leaching rate (kiloGrams_Per_Hectare) and volume-weighted mean N concentrations (milliGrams_Per_Liter) of dissolved organic carbon (DOC) in the leachate samples collected from corn, switchgrass, miscanthus, native grass, restored prairie and poplar plots in Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC) Biomass Cropping System Experiment (BCSE) during 2009-2016. Data for DOC leached and volume-wtd mean DOC concentration shown in Figure 5a and Figure 5b, respectively. Note that in 2009 and 2010 crop-years, water samples were not available for DOC measurements.     Variate    Description crop    “corn” “switchgrass” “miscanthus” “nativegrass” “restored prairie” “poplar” crop-year    year of the observation replicate    each crop has four replicated plots, R1, R2, R3 and R4 doc leached    annual leaching rates of nitrate (kiloGrams_Per_Hectare) vol-wtd doc conc.    volume-weighted mean doc concentration (milliGrams_Per_Liter) 7. Spreadsheet: growing season length Description: Growing season length (days) of corn, switchgrass, miscanthus, native grass, restored prairie and poplar plots in the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC) Biomass Cropping System Experiment (BCSE) during 2009-2015. Date shown in Figure S2. Note that growing season is from the date of planting or emergence to the date of harvest (or leaf senescence in case of poplar).   Variate    Description crop    “corn” “switchgrass” “miscanthus” “nativegrass” “restored prairie” “poplar” year    year of the observation growing season length    growing season length (days) 8. Spreadsheet: correlation_nh4 VS no3 Description: Correlation of ammonium (nh4+) and nitrate (no3-) concentrations (milliGrams_N_Per_Liter) in the leachate samples from corn, switchgrass, miscanthus, native grass, restored prairie and poplar plots in Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC) Biomass Cropping System Experiment (BCSE) during 2013-2015. Data shown in Figure S3. Note that nh4+ concentration in the leachates was very low compared to no3- and don concentration and often undetectable in three crop-years (2013-2015) when measurements are available. Variate    Description crop    “corn” “switchgrass” “miscanthus” “nativegrass” “restored prairie” “poplar” date    date of the observation (mm/dd/yyyy) replicate    each crop has four replicated plots, R1, R2, R3 and R4 nh4 conc    nh4 concentration (milliGrams_N_Per_Liter) no3 conc    no3 concentration (milliGrams_N_Per_Liter)   9. Spreadsheet: correlations_don VS no3_doc VS don Description: Correlations of don and nitrate concentrations (milliGrams_N_Per_Liter); and doc (milliGrams_Per_Liter) and don concentrations (milliGrams_N_Per_Liter) in the leachate samples of corn, switchgrass, miscanthus, native grass, restored prairie and poplar plots in Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC) Biomass Cropping System Experiment (BCSE) during 2013-2015. Data of correlation of don and nitrate concentrations shown in Figure S4 a and doc and don concentrations shown in Figure S4 b. Variate    Description crop    “corn” “switchgrass” “miscanthus” “nativegrass” “restored prairie” “poplar” year    year of the observation don    don concentration (milliGrams_N_Per_Liter) no3     no3 concentration (milliGrams_N_Per_Liter) doc    doc concentration (milliGrams_Per_Liter) 
    more » « less
  3. Abstract

    Trees are arguably the most diverse and complex macro-organisms on Earth. The equally diverse functions of trees directly impact fluxes of carbon, water and energy from the land surface. A number of recent studies have shed light on the substantial within-species variability across plant traits, including aspects of leaf morphology and plant allocation of photosynthates to leaf biomass. Yet, within-tree variability in leaf traits due to microclimatic variations, leaf hydraulic coordination across traits at different physiological scales and variations in leaf traits over a growing season remain poorly studied. This knowledge gap is stymieing the fundamental understanding of what drives trait variation and covariation from tissues to trees to landscapes. Here, we present an extensive dataset measuring within-tree heterogeneity in leaf traits in California’s blue oak (Quercus douglasii) across an edaphic gradient and over the course of a growing season at an oak–grass savanna in Southern CA, USA. We found a high level of within-tree crown leaf area:sapwood area variation that was not attributable to sample height or aspect. We also found a higher level of trait integration at the tree level, rather than branch level, suggesting that trees optimize water use at the organismal level. Despite the large variance in traits within a tree crown and across trees, we did not find strong evidence for adaptive plasticity or acclimation in leaf morphological traits (e.g., changes to phenotype which increased fitness) across temporal and spatial water availability gradients. Collectively, our results highlight strong variation in drought-related physiology, but limited evidence for adaptive trait plasticity over shorter time scales.

     
    more » « less
  4. Abstract

    Plant species can show considerable morphological and functional variation along environmental gradients. This intraspecific trait variation (ITV) can have important consequences for community assembly, biotic interactions, ecosystem functions and responses to global change. However, directly measuring ITV across many species and wide geographic areas is often infeasible. Thus, a method to predict spatial variation in a species’ functional traits could be valuable.

    We measured specific leaf area (SLA), height and leaf area (LA) of grasses across California, covering 59 species at 230 sampling locations. We asked how these traits change along climate gradients within each species and used machine learning to predict local trait values for any species at any location based on phylogenetic position, local climate and that species’ mean traits. We then examined how much these local predictions alter patterns of assemblage‐level trait variation across the state.

    Most species exhibited higher SLA and grew taller at higher temperatures and produced larger leaves in drier conditions. The random forests predicted spatial variation in functional traits very accurately, with correlations up to 0.97. Because trait records were spatially biased towards warmer areas, and these areas tend to have higher SLA individuals within each species, species means of SLA were upwardly biased. As a result, using species means over‐estimates SLA in the cooler regions of the state. Our results also suggest that height may be substantially under‐predicted in the warmest areas.

    Synthesis. Using only species mean traits to characterize the functional composition of communities risks introducing substantial error into trait‐based estimates of ecosystem properties including decomposition rates or NPP. The high performance of random forests in predicting local trait values provides a way forward for estimating high‐resolution patterns of ITV without a massive data collection effort.

     
    more » « less
  5. Abstract

    Multidimensional trait frameworks are increasingly used to understand plant strategies for growth and survival. However, it is unclear if frameworks developed at a global level can be applied in local communities and how well these frameworks—based largely on plant morphological traits—align with plant physiology and response to stress.

    We tested the ability of an integrated framework of plant form and function to characterise seedling trait variation and drought response among 22 grasses and forbs common in a semi‐arid grassland. We measured above‐ground and below‐ground traits, and survival to explore how drought response is linked to three trait dimensions (resource conservation, microbial collaboration, and plant size) associated with the framework as well as non‐morphological dimensions (e.g. physiological traits) that are under‐represented in global trait frameworks.

    We found support for three globally‐recognised axes representing trade‐offs in strategies associated with tissue investment (leaf nitrogen, leaf mass per area, root tissue density), below‐ground resource uptake (root diameter, specific root length), and size (shoot mass). However, in contrast to global patterns, above‐ground and below‐ground resource conservation gradients were oppositely aligned: root tissue density was positively correlated with leaf N rather than leaf mass per area. This likely reflects different investment strategies of annual and perennial herbaceous species, as fast‐growing annual species invested in lower density roots and less nitrogen‐rich leaves to maximise plant‐level carbon assimilation. Species with longer drought survival minimised water loss through small above‐ground size and low leaf‐level transpiration rates, and drought survival was best predicted by a principal component axis representing plant size.

    Contrary to our expectations, drought survival in seedlings did not align with the conservation or collaboration axes suggesting that seedlings with different functional strategies can achieve similar drought survival, as long as they minimise water loss. Our results also show that within local communities, expected trait relationships could be decoupled as some plant groups achieve similar performance through different trait combinations. The effectiveness of species mean trait values in predicting drought response highlights the value of trait‐based methods as a versatile tool for understanding ecological processes locally across various ecosystems.

    Read the freePlain Language Summaryfor this article on the Journal blog.

     
    more » « less