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Phenology determines leaf functional traits across Rhododendron species in the Sikkim Himalaya


Elevation gradients provide an ideal setting to infer species' functional trait responses to predicted future climate change. In plants, leaf functional traits help assess their capacity to cope with varying resources. Variation in abiotic conditions over short vertical distances can influence plant phenology, particularly leafing and flowering durations, and leaf functional traits at both inter- and intra-specific levels. However, studies examining relationships between leaf functional traits and phenology duration along elevation gradients are limited. We tested the relationship between leaf size, leaf thickness, specific leaf area, and leafing durations in 10 Rhododendron species in the Sikkim Himalaya. All the investigated traits varied significantly across species, but intra-specific variation in functional traits was observed only among a few. Leaf size and thickness showed significant negative relationships with elevation and a comparative phylogenetic method exhibited a strong relationship between leaf traits and leafing duration. We observed higher leaf thickness and size in species with longer leafing durations and less overlap in leafing and flowering durations. In contrast, species with shorter leafing durations and relatively more overlap in their flowering and leafing durations showed lower leaf thickness and leaf size. Leaf traits such as leaf thickness and leaf size also exhibited a strong phylogenetic signal across 10 Rhododendron species. Overall, from our findings, we infer that along an elevation gradient, the magnitude of leaf trait responses to future increases in temperature may vary depending on species phenology durations and phylogeny.

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This research was funded by the Department of Biotechnology, Government of India (Grant No. BT/01/NE/PS/NCBS/09) and the National Mission on Himalayan Studies, and implemented by the Ministry of Environment, Forest & Climate Change of India (Grant No. GBPI/NMHS/HF/RA/2015–2016). We thank the Sikkim State Department of Forests and Wildlife, Sikkim Police Department, and Indian Army for research permits and logistical support. Sonam Bhutia and Rakesh Basnett provided assistance for the data collection during the field work. Poornima A and Rani Saggere helped with the lab work. We thank Sandeep Sen for his valuable comments on the analysis. We are very thankful to three anonymous reviewers whose valuable comments have improved the manuscript.

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SB and SD conceived and designed the research. SB carried out the field work, analyzed the data, and wrote the manuscript. SD contributed to writing and all authors approved the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Shweta Basnett.

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Basnett, S., Devy, S.M. Phenology determines leaf functional traits across Rhododendron species in the Sikkim Himalaya. Alp Botany 131, 63–72 (2021).

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  • Eastern Himalaya
  • Elevation gradient
  • Climate change
  • Functional traits
  • Phenology
  • Rhododendron