, Volume 88, Issue 2, pp 263-273

Comparative life history and physiology of two understory Neotropical herbs

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Demography and physiology of two broad-leaved understory tropical herbs (Marantaceae) were studied in gaps and shaded understory in large-scale irrigated and control treatments during the dry season at Barro Colorado Island (BCI), Panama. Because photosynthetic acclimation potential may not predict light environments where tropical species are found, we studied a suite of physiological features to determine if they uniquely reflect the distribution of each species. Calathea inocephala and Pleiostachya pruinosa grow and reproduce in gaps, persist in shade, and have equivalent rates of leaf production. Calathea leaves survived 2 to 3 times as long as leaves of Pleiostachya and plants of Pleiostachya were 6 to 8 times more likely to die as plants of Calathea during 3.5 years of study. Pleiostachya had lowest survival in shade and when not irrigated during the dry season, while Calathea survived well in both habitats and both treatments. Pleiostachya had higher photosynthetic capacity and stomatal conductance than Calathea and acclimated to gaps by producing leaves with higher photosynthetic capacity. Calathea had lower mesophyll CO2 concentrations than Pleiostachya. Both species had similar dark respiration rates and light compensation points, and water-use and nitrogen-use efficiencies were inversely related between species. Species showed no differences in leaf osmotic potentials at full turgor. Calathea roots were deeper and had tuberous swellings.

Leaf-level assimilation and potential water loss are consistent with where these species are found, but photosynthetic acclimation to high light does not reflect both species' abilities to grow and reproduce in gaps. Pleiostachya's gap-dependent, rapid growth and reproduction require high rates of carbon gain in short-lived leaves, which can amortize their cost quickly. High rates of water loss are associated with reduced longevity during drought. Calathea's roots may confer greater capacitance, while its leaves are durable, long-lived and have lower water loss, permitting persistence long after gap closure.