Journal Article

To what extent is altitudinal variation of functional traits driven by genetic adaptation in European oak and beech?

Caroline C. Bresson, Yann Vitasse, Antoine Kremer and Sylvain Delzon

Edited by Sean Thomas

in Tree Physiology

Volume 31, issue 11, pages 1164-1174
Published in print November 2011 | ISSN: 0829-318X
Published online September 2011 | e-ISSN: 1758-4469 | DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/treephys/tpr084
To what extent is altitudinal variation of functional traits driven by genetic adaptation in European oak and beech?

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The phenotypic responses of functional traits in natural populations are driven by genetic diversity and phenotypic plasticity. These two mechanisms enable trees to cope with rapid climate change. We studied two European temperate tree species (sessile oak and European beech), focusing on (i) in situ variations of leaf functional traits (morphological and physiological) along two altitudinal gradients and (ii) the extent to which these variations were under environmental and/or genetic control using a common garden experiment. For all traits, altitudinal trends tended to be highly consistent between species and transects. For both species, leaf mass per area displayed a positive linear correlation with altitude, whereas leaf size was negatively correlated with altitude. We also observed a significant increase in leaf physiological performance with increasing altitude: populations at high altitudes had higher maximum rates of assimilation, stomatal conductance and leaf nitrogen content than those at low altitudes. In the common garden experiment, genetic differentiation between populations accounted for 0–28% of total phenotypic variation. However, only two traits (leaf mass per area and nitrogen content) exhibited a significant cline. The combination of in situ and common garden experiments used here made it possible to demonstrate, for both species, a weaker effect of genetic variation than of variations in natural conditions, suggesting a strong effect of the environment on leaf functional traits. Finally, we demonstrated that intrapopulation variability was systematically higher than interpopulation variability, whatever the functional trait considered, indicating a high potential capacity to adapt to climate change.

Keywords: adaptation; altitude; common garden; functional traits; genetic variation; phenotypic variations

Journal Article.  6934 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: Plant Sciences and Forestry

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