Plant Ecology

, Volume 220, Issue 3, pp 321–344 | Cite as

Seedling drought tolerance and functional traits vary in response to the timing of water availability in a keystone Hawaiian tree species

  • Andrea C. WesterbandEmail author
  • Aurora K. Kagawa-Viviani
  • Kari K. Bogner
  • David W. Beilman
  • Tiffany M. Knight
  • Kasey E. Barton


Climate change models project an increase in the frequency and duration of drought globally. Changes in rainfall are expected to have particularly detrimental effects on seedlings due to their inability to reach deep water sources. We conducted a greenhouse experiment to test how the timing of watering affects seedling performance, physiology, and morphology in a keystone island endemic tree, Metrosideros polymorpha. Seedlings were grown for 60 days in one of five conditions: control treatment with daily watering to 100% field capacity (FC), a 28-day pulse drought with no water, and three groups maintained at 80% FC and watered every 2, 7, or 14 days. Seedling drought tolerance depended on the duration of drought; growth for plants watered to 80% FC every 2 or 14 days was comparable to 100% FC plants, but was reduced in the 28-day pulse drought and 7-day 80% FC. Survival was high in all treatments except the pulse drought. Stomatal conductance, chlorophyll content, and C:N ratio were positively related to height and biomass under drought. Traits associated with resource investment, fluorescence, and water use were plastic in their expression, shifting under drought compared to control conditions. M. polymorpha seedlings exhibit trait plasticity that allows them to tolerate drought, but its duration and intensity influence their survival and growth. Our results highlight the need for experimental studies manipulating temporal variation in water with explicit consideration of the role of trait plasticity in drought tolerance.


Climate change Endemic species Island Metrosideros polymorpha Trait plasticity 



The authors thank the following undergraduate students who helped with the experiment: J. Quayle, A. Wong, A. Shiarella, and C. Nomura. Funding was provided by the University of Hawaii at Manoa College of Natural Sciences to KEB, by the Helmholtz Association as part of the Helmholtz recruitment initiative to TMK, and NSF-1502984 to DWB and for δ13C analysis. Leaf samples for δ13C analysis were processed with the help of postdoctoral researcher, Charly Massa.


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© Springer Nature B.V. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of BotanyUniversity of Hawaii at ManoaHonoluluUSA
  2. 2.Department of GeographyUniversity of Hawaii at ManoaHonoluluUSA
  3. 3.Department of Community EcologyHelmholtz Centre for Environmental Research-UFZHalleGermany
  4. 4.Institute of BiologyMartin Luther University Halle-WittenbergHalleGermany
  5. 5.German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv) Halle-Jena-LeipzigLeipzigGermany
  6. 6.Department of Biological SciencesMacquarie UniversityMacquarie ParkAustralia

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