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High photosynthetic capacity of Sahelian C3 and C4 plants

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The semi-arid ecosystems of the African Sahel play an important role in the global carbon cycle and are among the most sensitive ecosystems to future environmental pressures. Still, basic data of photosynthetic characteristics of Sahelian vegetation are very limited, preventing us to properly understand these ecosystems and to project their response to future global changes. Here, we aim to study and quantify key leaf traits, including photosynthetic parameters and leaf nutrients (Nleaf and Pleaf), of common C3 and C4 Sahelian plants (trees, lianas, and grasses) at the Dahra field site (Senegal). Dahra is a reference site for grazed semi-arid Sahelian savannah ecosystems in carbon cycle studies. Within the studied species, we found that photosynthetic parameters varied considerably between functional types. We also found significant relationships between and within photosynthetic parameters and leaf traits which mostly differed in their slopes from C3 to C4 plants. In agreement with the leaf economic spectrum, strong relationships (R2 = 0.71) were found between SLA and Nleaf whereby C3 and C4 plants showed very similar relationships. By comparing our data to a global dataset of plant traits, we show that measured Sahelian plants exhibit higher photosynthetic capacity (Asat) compared to the non-Sahelian vegetation, with values that are on average a fourfold of the global average. Moreover, Sahelian C3 plants showed photosynthetic nutrient use efficiencies that were on average roughly twice as high as global averages. We interpreted these results as the potential adaptation of Sahelian plants to short growing season lengths via an efficient nutrient allocation to optimize photosynthesis during this period. Our study provides robust estimates of key functional traits, but also traits relationships that will help to calibrate and validate vegetation models over this data-poor region.

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The authors thank the BELSPO STEREO Project UTURN (SR/00/339) and VLIR-UOS for funding the fieldwork of this study. The authors also acknowledge Dr. Torbern Tagesson of the University of Copenhagen for sharing climate data of the Dahra site. M.P. acknowledges the financial support from the Fonds Wetenschappelijk Onderzoek (FWO; Grant No. G018319N) and the H2020 Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions (LEAF-2-TBM Grant No. 891369).

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Correspondence to Thomas Sibret.

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Sibret, T., Verbruggen, W., Peaucelle, M. et al. High photosynthetic capacity of Sahelian C3 and C4 plants. Photosynth Res 147, 161–175 (2021).

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