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Water stress tolerance tracks environmental exposure and exhibits a fluctuating sexual dimorphism in a tropical liverwort

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Water shortage events negatively impact plant productivity, threaten ecosystem functioning, and are predicted to increase dramatically in the coming years. Consequently, building a detailed understanding of how plants respond to water stress is critical for improving predictions of ecological processes and species range shifts under climate change. Here, we characterized patterns of intraspecific variation in dehydration tolerance (DhT, also dehydration tolerant) across a variable landscape in the tropical plant, Marchantia inflexa. DhT enables tissues to survive substantial drying (below an absolute water content of − 10 MPa) and despite the ecological significance of DhT, many questions remain. We tested if DhT was correlated with an environmental exposure gradient, if male and female plants had contrasting DhT phenotypes, and if variation in DhT had a genetic component. To do so, we collected plants from five populations, spanning an environmental exposure gradient in the forests of northern Trinidad, Republic of Trinidad and Tobago. We measured DhT immediately after collection, and after growing plants for ~ 1 year in a common garden. We found that DhT varied significantly among populations and tracked the characterized exposure gradient. Additionally, we showed that phenotypic differences among populations in DhT were maintained in the common garden, suggesting that underlying genetic differences contribute to DhT variability. Finally, we detected a fluctuating sexual dimorphism where males had lower DhT than females in less exposed sites, but not in more exposed sites. Interestingly, this fluctuating sexual dimorphism in DhT was driven primarily by male variation (females exhibited similar DhT across sites).

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All data associated with this study are deposited on Figshare ( and will be made publicly available upon publication.


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This project was funded by the 2016 Anderson and Crum Bryology Field Research Award to RAM from the American Bryological and Lichenological Society, The Kentucky Science and Engineering Foundation Research and Development Excellence Program (Grant No. KSEF-3521-RDE-019), and University of Kentucky, Department of Biology’s Ribble endowment for research funding, a fellowship to RAM, and an undergraduate research award to BDP. We thank the University of Kentucky, College of Agriculture, Food and Environment for greenhouse space; the Wildlife Section, Forestry Division, Ministry of Agriculture, Land and Marine Resources of Trinidad and Tobago for collection and export permits; the Water and Sewage Authority for access to the research sites; and Andrea and Darryl McLetchie for logistical support in Trinidad.

Author information

RAM and DNM conceived of the project and designed the methodology. RAM, BDP, and DNM collected data. RAM, BDP, and DNM contributed to data analyses. RAM led the writing of the manuscript. All authors read and gave final approval of the manuscript for publication.

Correspondence to Rose A. Marks.

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Communicated by Louis Stephen Santiago.

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Marks, R.A., Pike, B.D. & Nicholas McLetchie, D. Water stress tolerance tracks environmental exposure and exhibits a fluctuating sexual dimorphism in a tropical liverwort. Oecologia 191, 791–802 (2019).

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  • Fluctuating sexual dimorphisms
  • Ecophysiology
  • Desiccation tolerance
  • Intraspecific variation
  • Diversity panel