, Volume 27, Issue 3, pp 639-653
Date: 12 Dec 2012

Water-use efficiency and whole-plant performance of nine tropical tree species at two sites with contrasting water availability in Panama

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Abstract

Across their natural distributions, tropical tree species are regularly exposed to seasonal droughts of varying intensities. Their ability to tolerate drought stress plays a vital role in determining growth and mortality rates, as well as shaping the functional composition of tropical forests. In order to assess the ability of species to acclimate to contrasting levels of drought stress, physiological and structural traits involved in drought adaptation—wood C isotope discrimination (δ13C), wood specific gravity, and wood C content—of 2-year-old saplings of nine tropical tree species were evaluated in common garden experiments at two study sites in Panama with contrasting seasonality. We assessed co-variation in wood traits with relative growth rates (RGRBD), aboveground biomass, and basal diameter and the plasticity of wood traits across study sites. Overall, species responded to lower water availability by increasing intrinsic water-use efficiency, i.e., less negative wood δ13C, but did not exhibit a uniform, directional response for wood specific gravity or wood C content. Trait plasticity for all wood traits was independent of RGRBD and tree size. We found that the adaptive value of intrinsic water-use efficiency varied with water availability. Intrinsic water-use efficiency increased with decreasing RGRBD at the more seasonal site, facilitating higher survival of slower growing species. Conversely, intrinsic water-use efficiency increased with tree size at the less seasonal site, which conferred a competitive advantage to larger individuals at the cost of greater susceptibility to drought-induced mortality. Our results illustrate that acclimation to water availability has negligible impacts on tree growth over short periods, but eventually could favor slow-growing species with conservative water-use strategies in tropical regions experiencing increasingly frequent and severe droughts.

Communicated by A. Gessler.