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To compete or defend: linking functional trait variation with life-history tradeoffs in a foundation tree species


Although chemical deterrents to herbivory often exact costs in terms of plant growth, the manner in which those costs arise, and their physiological relationship to other functional traits, remain unclear. In the absence of appreciable herbivory, we examined interrelationships among chemical defense levels and other foliar functional traits (e.g., light-saturated photosynthesis, specific leaf area, nitrogen concentration) as co-determinants of tree growth and, by extension, competitive ability in high-density populations comprising 16 genotypes of Populus tremuloides. Across genotypes, concentrations of chemical defenses were not significantly related to other leaf functional traits, but levels of the salicinoid phenolic glycosides (SPGs) salicin, salicortin and tremulacin were each negatively correlated with relative mass growth (RMG) of aboveground woody tissue (P ≤ 0.001). RMG, in turn, underpinned 77% of the genotypic variation in relative height growth (our index of competitive ability). RMG was also positively related to light-saturated photosynthesis (P ≤ 0.001), which, together with the three SPGs, explained 86% of genotypic RMG variation (P ≤ 0.001). Moreover, results of a carbon balance simulation indicated that costs of resource allocation to SPGs, reaching nearly a third of annual crown photosynthesis, were likely mediated by substantial metabolic turnover, particularly for salicin. The lack of discernible links between foliar defense allocation and other (measured) functional traits, and the illustrated potential of metabolic turnover to reconcile influences of SPG allocation on RMG, shed additional light on fundamental physiological mechanisms underlying evolutionary tradeoffs between chemical defense investment and competitive ability in a foundation tree species.

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Financial support for this study was provided by the National Science Foundation (grants DEB-0841609 and DEB-1456592) and the USDA McIntire-Stennis Program (grant WIS01842). We are grateful for the invaluable technical assistance provided by Andrew Helm, Kennedy Rubert-Nason, and Daniel Reeves.

Author information

RLL and ELK secured funding, and, with KKR, designed the study. LMH and KKR initiated and maintained the study. ELK, LMH and KKR collected and processed data. ELK conducted data analyses and simulations. ELK generated the first manuscript draft, and all authors contributed substantially to revisions.

Correspondence to Eric L. Kruger.

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Communicated by Fernando Valladares.

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Kruger, E.L., Keefover-Ring, K., Holeski, L.M. et al. To compete or defend: linking functional trait variation with life-history tradeoffs in a foundation tree species. Oecologia (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00442-020-04622-y

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  • Competition
  • Functional traits
  • Growth
  • Salicinoid phenolic glycosides
  • Photosynthesis