Variation in leaf anatomical traits from tropical to cold-temperate forests and linkage to ecosystem functions

Nianpeng He, Congcong Liu, Miao Tian, Meiling Li, Hao Yang, Guirui Yu, Dali Guo, Melinda D Smith, Qiang Yu, Jihua Hou

He - 01148 - graphical abstract

Leaves play key roles in photosynthesis and long-term adaptation to the environment. Therefore, leaf anatomical traits, such as leaf thickness and ratios of different tissues in leaves, may reflect a plant’s adaptation to environmental changes and influence photosynthesis to some extent, because they regulate light absorption and gas exchange.

To explore the variation of leaf anatomical traits at a large scale and at species, plant functional group (a set of species that share similar characteristics within a community, such as trees, shrubs, and herbs), and community levels, we used data for eight leaf anatomical traits for 916 plant species, consistently collected from nine typical forests ranging from cold-temperate to tropical zones in eastern China. Furthermore, we try to establish the link between leaf anatomical traits and gross primary productivity (GPP) in natural forest communities. To date, how to link plant traits to ecosystem functioning in natural communities is still a big challenge for scientists.

The results showed that leaf anatomical traits showed significant latitudinal patterns at species, plant functional group, and community levels, reflecting the long-term adaptation of leaf anatomical traits to the environment in natural communities. Temperature and precipitation were the main factors influencing variation of leaf anatomical traits at the large scale, and most of them were correlated with the aridity index (a parameter calculated from mean annual precipitation and mean annual temperature to represent water availability in a specific site). GPP was significantly correlated with the ratios of different tissues in leaves in forest communities from tropical to cold-temperate zones at a large spatial scale, indicating that plants may regulate these ratios to enhance GPP in different regions.

Our study helped to fill the data gap for leaf anatomical traits at large scales, and explored the adaptation strategies of plants to changing environment through adjusting leaf anatomical traits (or the ratios of different tissues in leaves). Furthermore, these findings provided new evidence for the linkages between leaf traits and functioning in natural forest communities.

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