Population Ecology


, Volume 143, Issue 2, pp 220-231

First online:

Phenotypic plasticity in Carlina vulgaris: effects of geographical origin, population size, and population isolation

  • Henrik BergAffiliated withDepartment of Biology, Plant Ecology, University of MarburgPlant Ecology/Department of Ecology and Evolution, Evolutionary Biology Centre, Uppsala University Email author 
  • , Ute BeckerAffiliated withDepartment of Biology, Plant Ecology, University of Marburg
  • , Diethart MatthiesAffiliated withDepartment of Biology, Plant Ecology, University of Marburg

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If phenotypic plasticity is under genetic control, it may vary in amount and pattern on a geographical scale, e.g. among different regions of a species’ distribution. It may also differ between large and small or between less and more isolated populations, due to differences in genetic diversity. In a 2-year common garden study, the responses of several traits to drought and fertilizer treatments were studied in the grassland herb Carlina vulgaris. Individuals originating from populations of different size and degree of isolation in six European countries, representing “central” and “marginal” regions, were compared. Fertilizing had a negative effect on early plant survival, as well as on flowering probability in surviving plants. However, in those plants that flowered, fertilizing strongly increased mean number of flowerheads, flowerhead area (a correlate of seed number), and seed mass. Drought had generally weaker effects but enhanced survivorship, indicating that this treatment was closer to optimal conditions than were non-drought conditions. For some traits there were significant interactions of region × fertilizer, but the geographical pattern of reaction norms was inconsistent and lent no support to the hypothesis that central and marginal populations differ in overall plasticity. Population size and isolation had hardly any influence on treatment responses, but populations within regions differed in their mean response to fertilizing with regard to survival and flowering probabilities, as well as in their response to drought with regard to survival and total flowerhead area. It is concluded that response to raised nutrient levels is highly variable within populations, ranging from death to strongly increased reproductive output, but also among populations irrespective of size or isolation. This also goes for the response to water supply, though this variation shows a more unclear pattern. There is no evidence that small or isolated/marginal populations are less plastic than large or non-isolated/central populations, and the explanation for differences in treatment responses among plant populations should be sought in other population characteristics.


Drought Fertilizer Fitness Genetic diversity Monocarpic perennial