Seedling ontogenetic trait shifts implications for restoration ecology

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Caroline A. Havrilla, Seth M. Munson, Ethan O. Yackulic, Bradley J. Butterfield4

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Trait-based frameworks are increasingly utilized in restoration ecology to understand species responses to environmental variation and to build community assemblages resilient to global change. Yet, ontogenetic trait variation within species, particularly during early stages of development, remains understudied. We used a manipulative greenhouse experiment to explore trait variation in early stages of development in 11 perennial plant species abundant across the western US. We examined variability in key trait values (i.e., specific leaf area, root:shoot ratio, specific root length, and root dry matter content) of 20 – 62-day-old seedlings grown under high and low levels of water availability. We also compared these to compiled trait databases to assess how representative these readily available data sources are of seedling trait values. Seedling trait values consistently differed from those of vegetatively mature plants and database values with variation dependent on stage of development, plant functional type and species, and water availability. Overall, forbs experienced greater ontogenetic trait shifts relative to grasses for all measured root-associated traits. Seedlings transitioned from fast-growing resource acquisitional strategies toward more conservative, slow-growing strategies over time. Results suggest plant trait database values may be poor predictors of early seedling trait values. Such mismatches in species trait information could result in inaccurate predictions of community assembly outcomes or incongruities between seedling traits and environmental filters experienced by seedlings during early stages of recruitment. Additional work is needed to characterize trait variation across plant ontogeny and will support a predictive understanding of plant recruitment processes and outcomes of ecological restoration.

Resource Type:
Conference Presentation, SER2021

Pre-approved for CECs under SER's CERP program