ARTICLE | doi:10.20944/preprints202306.1933.v1
Subject: Biology And Life Sciences, Ecology, Evolution, Behavior And Systematics Keywords: Andes mountains; drought tolerance; elevation; solute leakage; tropical forest; understory plants; turgor loss point; cuticular conductance
Online: 27 June 2023 (15:02:29 CEST)
Little is known about how differences in water availability within the “super humid” tropics can influence the distribution of understory plant species and the composition of understory plant communities. We investigated variation in the physiological drought tolerances of understory plants and plant communities across a large elevation and precipitation gradient. We established 58 understory plots along a gradient of 400 – 3600 m asl elevation and 1000 – 6000 mm yr-1 rainfall in and around Manu National Park in southeastern Peru. Within the plots, we sampled all understory woody plants and measured three metrics of physiological leaf drought tolerance - turgor loss point (TLP), cuticular conductance (Gmin), and solute leakage (SL) - and assessed how the community-level means of these traits related to mean annual precipitation (MAP) and elevation (in the study gradient temperature decreases linearly and vapor pressure deficit increases monotonically with elevation). We did not find any correlations between the three metrics of leaf drought tolerance, suggesting that they represent independent strategies for coping with low water availability. Despite being widely used metrics of leaf drought tolerance, neither TLP nor Gmin showed any significant relationships with elevation or MAP. In contrast, SL, which has only recently been developed for use in ecological field studies, increased significantly at higher precipitations and at lower elevations (i.e., plants in colder and drier habitats have lower SL, indicating greater drought tolerances). Our results illustrate that differences in water availability may play a strong role in structuring plant communities even in in the wet tropics and highlight the potential for SL assays to be an efficient and effective tool for measuring drought tolerances in the field.