, Volume 92, Issue 4, pp 586-595

Photosynthetic plasticity of two rain forest shrubs across natural gap transects

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Summary

Photosynthetic plasticity of two congeneric shrub species growing under natural field conditions was compared along transects spanning two canopy gaps in a Costa Rican rain forest. Piper arieianum is a shadetolerant species common in successional and mature forests, whereas P. sancti-felicis is a pioneer species abundant in abandoned clearings and large gaps. Twenty potted cuttings of each species were placed at regular intervals along two east-west transects crossing a small branch-fall gap and a large tree-fall gap. Along the transects, the percent of full sun photon flux density varied from less than 2% to 45%. After six months of growth under these conditions, leaves were monitored for incident photon flux density, photographic measures of light availability, photosynthetic capacity (Amax), leaf nitrogen content, leaf chlorophyll content, and specific leaf mass. Although both species demonstrated considerable plasticity in Amax across gap transects, P. sancti-felicis leaves had a superior capacity to track closely variation in light availability, particularly in the larger gap. For regressions of Amax on measures of light availability, P. sancti-felicis consistently showed a 3.5 to 5-fold higher coefficient of determination (R2) and a 3 to 4-fold higher slope than P. arieianum. In both species leaf nitrogen content per leaf area increased significantly with light availability, although P. sancti-felicis, again, showed a much stronger relationship between these variables. Across the transects, mean chlorophyll content per unit leaf area did not differ significantly between the species, whereas mean chlorophyll content per unit leaf dry mass was 3-times greater in leaves of P. sancti-felicis. Piper arieianum exhibited highly significant increases in chlorophyll a:b ratio with increased light availability, whereas P. sancti-felicis lacked significant variation in this trait across a gradient of light availability. Mean specific leaf mass did not vary significantly between species across the gap transects. The nature of the light acclimatory response differs quantitatively and qualitatively between these species. An important constraint on light acclimation of the shade-tolerant P. arieianum is its inability to increase photosynthetic nitrogen-use efficiency under conditions of high light availability. The lack of plasticity in chlorophyll a:b ratios does not restrict light acclimation of Amax in P. sancti-felicis. Leaves of P. arieianum exhibited symptoms of chronic photoinhibition in exposed microsites within the large gap. Species differences in the capacity to finely adjust Amax across a wide range of light conditions may be attributed to their maximum growth potential. Light acclimation in species with low maximum growth potential may be constrained at the cellular level by rates of protein and chlorophyll synthesis and at the whole-plant level by low maximum rates of uptake and supply of nutrients and water. For P. arieianum, restriction of photosynthetic plasticity is likely to limit competitive abilities of plants in high-light conditions of large gaps and clearings, whereas observed habitat restrictions for P. sancti-felicis do not appear to depend upon the highly-developed capacity for adjustment of Amax observed in this species.