The greater seedling high-light tolerance of Quercus robur over Fagus sylvatica is linked to a greater physiological plasticity
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The responses of Quercus robur (oak) and Fagus sylvatica (beech) seedlings to four different light environments (full, 50%, 40% and 15% sunlight) and to a rapid increase in irradiance were explored during the summer, after 2 years of growth in a forest nursery at Nancy (France). Significant differences between the two species were found for most variables. Phenotypic plasticity for morphological variables (root-shoot ratio, leaf size, leaf weight ratio) was higher in beech than in oak, while the reverse was true for anatomical (stomatal density, epidermis thickness, exchange surface area of the palisade parenchyma) and physiological (maximum photosynthetic rate, stomatal conductance, Rubisco activity) variables. Predawn photochemical efficiency (F v/F m) was higher in oak than in beech in all light environments except in 15% sunlight. F v/F m was significantly lower in 100% sunlight than in the other light environments in beech but not in oak. Maximum photosynthetic rates (A max) increased with increasing light availability in the two species but they were always higher in oak than in beech. Oak exhibited higher Rubisco activity than beech in full sunlight. The transfer of shade-adapted seedlings to the open caused a decrease of F v/F m, which was larger for beech than for oak. Transferred oak but not beech plants recovered gradually to the control F v/F m values. The decreased chlorophyll content and the increased non-photochemical quenching observed in high-light beech seedlings were not enough to avoid photoinhibition. The results suggest that a greater tolerance of strong irradiance is linked to an enhanced physiological plasticity (variables related to photosynthesis), while shade tolerance relies on an enhanced plasticity in light-harvesting variables (crown morphology and chlorophyll content).
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