, Volume 145, Issue 4, pp 541–548 | Cite as

Variation in carbon isotope discrimination in relation to plant performance in a natural population of Cryptantha flava



Few studies of phenotypic selection have focused on physiological traits, especially in natural populations. The adaptive significance of plant water-use efficiency, the ratio of photosynthesis to water loss through transpiration, has rarely been examined. In this study, carbon isotopic discrimination, Δ, an integrated measure of water-use efficiency, was repeatedly measured in juveniles and adults in a natural population of the herbaceous desert perennial Cryptantha flava over a 4-year period and examined for plasticity in Δ, consistency between years in values of Δ, and evidence for selection on Δ phenotypes. There was significant concordance in Δ values among the 4 years for adult plants and significant correlations in Δ values measured in different years for juveniles and adults combined. The wettest year of the study, 1998, proved an exception because Δ values that year were not correlated with Δ values in any other year of the study. Consistency in Δ measured on the same plants in different years could indicate genotypic variation and/or consistency in the water status of the microhabitats the plants occupied. Two forms of plasticity in Δ were also evident; mean seasonal values were correlated with precipitation the preceding autumn, and Δ values also declined with plant size, indicating increasing water-use efficiency. Phenotypic selection was evident because in the first year of the study juvenile plants that would survive until year five averaged lower Δ values than did those that failed to survive. During the driest year, 2000, Δ was significantly negatively correlated with adult plant size, measured as the number of leaf rosettes, but the negative relationship between Δ and the number of flowering stalks, a more direct measure of fitness, was not significant. These results suggest that the direction of phenotypic selection on Δ changes as plants grow.


Cryptantha flava Integrated water-use efficiency Phenotypic plasticity Phenotypic selection Selection on WUE 



We thank M. Peek, H. Kempenich. S. Frank, T. Marushak, and A. McElrone for field assistance, the Bureau of Land Management for access to field sites, the Uintah Basin Branch Campus of the Utah State University and L. Squires for use of laboratory facilities. J. Doherty, B. Ji, R. Lucas, L. Spindler, and two anonymous reviewers provided valuable comments on the manuscript. The work was funded by NSF grant IBN95-27833.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2005

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of BiologyUniversity of PennsylvaniaPhiladelphiaUSA
  2. 2.Department of BiologyUniversity of Maryland USA
  3. 3.Department of BiologySouthwest Missouri State UniversitySpringfieldUSA

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