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Title: Intra-canopy leaf trait variation facilitates high leaf area index and compensatory growth in a clonal woody encroaching shrub

Leaf trait variation enables plants to utilize large gradients of light availability that exist across canopies of high leaf area index (LAI), allowing for greater net carbon gain while reducing light availability for understory competitors. While these canopy dynamics are well understood in forest ecosystems, studies of canopy structure of woody shrubs in grasslands are lacking. To evaluate the investment strategy used by these shrubs, we investigated the vertical distribution of leaf traits and physiology across canopies of Cornus drummondii, the predominant woody encroaching shrub in the Kansas tallgrass prairie. We also examined the impact of disturbance by browsing and grazing on these factors. Our results reveal that leaf mass per area (LMA) and leaf nitrogen per area (Na) varied approximately threefold across canopies of C. drummondii, resulting in major differences in the physiological functioning of leaves. High LMA leaves had high photosynthetic capacity, while low LMA leaves had a novel strategy for maintaining light compensation points below ambient light levels. The vertical allocation of leaf traits in C. drummondii canopies was also modified in response to browsing, which increased light availability at deeper canopy depths. As a result, LMA and Na increased at lower canopy depths, leading to a greater photosynthetic capacity deeper in browsed canopies compared to control canopies. This response, along with increased light availability, facilitated greater photosynthesis and resource-use efficiency deeper in browsed canopies compared to control canopies. Our results illustrate how C. drummondii facilitates high LAI canopies and a compensatory growth response to browsing—both of which are key factors contributing to the success of C. drummondii and other species responsible for grassland woody encroachment.

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Award ID(s):
Author(s) / Creator(s):
; ; ;
Cavaleri, Molly
Publisher / Repository:
Oxford University Press
Date Published:
Journal Name:
Tree Physiology
Medium: X
Sponsoring Org:
National Science Foundation
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