Mistletoes and their eucalypt hosts differ in the response of leaf functional traits to climatic moisture supply

Abstract

Trade-offs between photosynthesis and the costs of resource capture inform economic strategies of plants across environmental gradients and result in predictable variation in leaf traits. However, understudied functional groups like hemiparasites that involve dramatically different strategies for resource capture may have traits that deviate from expectations. We measured leaf traits related to gas exchange in mistletoes and their eucalypt hosts along a climatic gradient in relative moisture supply, measured as the ratio of precipitation to pan evaporation (P/Ep), in Victoria, Australia. We compared traits for mistletoes vs. hosts as functions of relative moisture supply and examined trait–trait correlations in both groups. Eucalypt leaf traits responded strongly to decreasing P/Ep, consistent with economic theory. Leaf area and specific leaf area (SLA) decreased along the P/Ep gradient, while C:N ratio, leaf thickness, N per area, and δ13C all increased. Mistletoes responded overall less strongly to P/Ep based on multivariate analyses; individual traits sometimes shifted in parallel with those of hosts, but SLA, leaf thickness, and N per area showed no significant change across the gradient. For mistletoes, leaf thickness was inversely related to leaf dry matter content (LDMC), with no relationship between SLA and mass-based N. In mistletoes, reduced costs of transpiration (reflecting their lack of roots) and abundant succulent leaf tissue help account for observed differences from their eucalypt hosts. Trait-based analysis of atypical functional types such as mistletoes help refine hypotheses based on plant economics and specialized adaptations to resource limitation.

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Fig. 1

modified from Givnish et al. 2014)

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Data availability

All data used in this project are available at doi.org/10.17605/OSF.IO/G5WX3.

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Acknowledgments

This research emerged from a field course in Victoria led by TJG, KAM, and MAA during August 2018, supported by NSF grant IOS-1557509 to TJG, KAM, MAA, and Thomas Buckley, and by a grant from the Humboldt Fund of the Department of Botany at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. We thank Ian Wright and 3 anonymous reviewers for critical comments that greatly improved the manuscript. T. Oberhauser, T. Ollmann, and K. Wang assisted with lab work. JHR was supported by the Dickie Family Sauk County Educational Award. JJH was supported by the NSF GRFP grant DGE-1747503. JHR and JJH were supported by the Graduate School and the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research and Graduate Education at the University of Wisconsin‐Madison with funding from the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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JHR, JJH, QMS, KAM, and TJG conceived the ideas and designed methodology; MAA, KAM, and TJG acquired funding; JHR, JJH, QMS, and DDS collected the data; JHR, JJH, and QMS analyzed the data; JHR, JJH, QMS, and TJG led the writing of the manuscript. All authors contributed critically to the drafts and gave final approval for publication.

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Correspondence to Jeannine H. Richards.

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Communicated by David Tissue.

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Richards, J.H., Henn, J.J., Sorenson, Q.M. et al. Mistletoes and their eucalypt hosts differ in the response of leaf functional traits to climatic moisture supply. Oecologia 195, 759–771 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00442-021-04867-1

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Keywords

  • Aridity gradient
  • Eucalyptus
  • Hemiparasitism
  • Leaf economics
  • Succulence