Optimal stomatal drought response shaped by competition for water and hydraulic risk can explain plant trait covariation

Yaojie Lu, Remko A. Duursma, Caroline E. Farrior, Belinda E. Medlyn, Xue Feng

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

41 Scopus citations


The classical theory of stomatal optimization stipulates that stomata should act to maximize photosynthesis while minimizing transpiration. This theory, despite its remarkable success in reproducing empirical patterns, does not account for the fact that the available water to plants is dynamically regulated by plants themselves, and that plants compete for water in most locations. Here, we develop an alternative theory in which plants maximize the expected carbon gain under stochastic rainfall in a competitive environment. We further incorporate xylem hydraulic limitation as an additional constraint to transpiration and evaluate its impacts on stomatal optimization by incorporating the direct carbon cost of xylem recovery and the opportunity cost of reduced future photosynthesis as a result of irrecoverable xylem damage. We predict stomatal behaviour to be more conservative with a higher cost induced by xylem damage. By varying the unit carbon cost and extent of xylem recovery, characterizing the direct and opportunity cost of xylem damage, respectively, our model can reproduce several key patterns of stomatal-hydraulic trait covariations. By addressing the key elements of water limitation in plant gas exchange simultaneously, including plants’ self-regulation of water availability, competition for water and hydraulic risk, our study provides a comprehensive theoretical basis for understanding stomatal behaviour.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1206-1217
Number of pages12
JournalNew Phytologist
Issue number3
StatePublished - Feb 1 2020

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We thank Stephen Pacala for advice about modelling xylem cavitation and recovery and Matthew Roughan for helpful discussion on functional optimization. This work was funded by ARC Discovery Grant DP120104055. YL was assisted by a Visiting Graduate Student Fellowship at the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis, an Institute sponsored by the National Science Foundation through NSF award #DBI‐1300426, with additional support from The University of Tennessee, Knoxville.


  • evolutionarily stable strategy (ESS)
  • plant water competition
  • stochastic rainfall
  • stomatal optimization
  • stomatal response to drought
  • trait covariation
  • xylem cavitation and recovery


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