, Volume 162, Issue 4, pp 853–863 | Cite as

Phylogenetically balanced evidence for structural and carbon isotope responses in plants along elevational gradients

  • Yuan Zhu
  • Rolf T. W. Siegwolf
  • Walter Durka
  • Christian Körner
Physiological ecology - Original Paper


We tested three hypotheses related to the functioning of mountain plants, namely their reproductive effort, leaf surface structure and effectiveness of CO2 assimilation, using archive material from contrasting elevations. Analysis of elevational trends is at risk of suffering from two major biases: a phylogenetic bias (i.e. an elevational change in the abundance of taxonomic groups), and covariation of different environmental drivers (e.g. water, temperature, atmospheric pressure), which do not permit a mechanistic interpretation. We solved both problems in a subcontinental survey of elevational trends in key plant traits in the European Alps and the high Arctic (northern Sweden, Svalbard), using herbarium samples of 147 species belonging to the genera Carex, Saxifraga and Potentilla. We used both species and phylogenetically independent contrasts as data points. The analysis revealed enhanced reproductive efforts at higher elevation in insect-pollinated taxa (not in wind-pollinated taxa), no increase in leaf pubescence at high elevation (as is often assumed), and a strong correlation between 13C discrimination and elevation. Alpine taxa operate at a smaller mesophyll resistance to CO2 uptake relative to diffusive resistance (stomata). By comparison with congeneric low altitude polar taxa (low temperature, but high atmospheric pressure), the response could be attributed to the elevational decline in atmospheric pressure rather than temperature (a mean increase in δ13C by 1.4‰ km−1). The signal is consistent within and across genera and within species, suggesting rapid adjustment of leaf physiology to reduced partial pressure of CO2. These results offer answers to long-debated issues of plant responses to high elevation life conditions.


Elevation Atmospheric pressure Morphology Reproduction Temperature 

Supplementary material

442_2009_1515_MOESM1_ESM.doc (1 mb)
Supplementary material (Figs. 1, 2; Table 1, 2) (DOC 1035 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  • Yuan Zhu
    • 1
  • Rolf T. W. Siegwolf
    • 2
  • Walter Durka
    • 3
  • Christian Körner
    • 4
  1. 1.School of Environment and Natural ResourcesRenmin University of ChinaBeijingPeople’s Republic of China
  2. 2.Paul Scherrer InstituteVilligenSwitzerland
  3. 3.Department of Community Ecology (BZF)UFZ, Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research - UFZHalleGermany
  4. 4.Institute of BotanyUniversity of BaselBaselSwitzerland

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