Physiological responses to light explain competition and facilitation in a tree diversity experiment

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Abstract

Ecologists often invoke interspecific facilitation to help explain positive biodiversity–ecosystem function relationships in plant communities, but seldom test how it occurs. One mechanism through which one species may facilitate another is by ameliorating abiotic stress. Physiological experiments show that a chronic excess of light can cause stress that depresses carbon assimilation. If shading by a plant's neighbours reduces light stress enough, it may facilitate that plant's growth. If light is instead most often a limiting factor for photosynthesis, shading may have an adverse, competitive effect. In a temperate tree diversity experiment, we measured stem growth rates and photosynthetic physiology in broadleaf trees across a gradient of light availability imposed by their neighbours. At the extremes, trees experienced nearly full sun (monoculture), or were shaded by nearby fast-growing conifers (shaded biculture). Most species had slower growth rates with larger neighbours, implying a net competitive effect. On the other hand, the two most shade-tolerant species (Tilia americana and Acer negundo) and the most shade-intolerant one (Betula papyrifera) had faster stem growth rates with larger neighbours. The two shade-tolerant species had the greatest increases in photoinhibition (reduced dark-acclimated Fv/Fm) across the gradient of increasing light availability, which suggests they are more vulnerable to chronic light stress. While most species had lower carbon assimilation rates in the shaded biculture treatment, T. americana had rates up to 25% higher. T. americana also dropped its leaves 3–4 weeks earlier in monocultures, curtailing its growing season. We conclude that although large neighbours can cause light limitation in shade-intolerant species, they can also increase growth through abiotic stress amelioration in shade-tolerant species. Finally, in shade-intolerant B. papyrifera, we find a pattern of stem elongation in trees with larger neighbours, which suggests that a shade avoidance response may account for the apparent positive trend in stem volume. Synthesis. Both positive and negative species interactions in our experiment can be explained in large part by the photosynthetic responses of trees to the light environment created by their neighbours. We show that photosynthetic physiology can help explain the species interactions that underlie biodiversity–ecosystem function relationships. The insights that ecologists gain by searching for such physiological mechanisms may help us forecast species interactions under environmental change.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2000-2018
Number of pages19
JournalJournal of Ecology
Volume109
Issue number5
DOIs
StatePublished - May 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
University of Minnesota, including Cedar Creek ESR, lies on the ancestral, traditional and contemporary Land of the Dakota. Conversations with Jake Grossman and Laura Williams inspired much of this research. Beth Fallon, German Vargas G., Artur Stefanski, Daniel Stanton and Danielle Way all gave valuable advice about measuring photosynthesis. We are indebted to Cathleen Lapadat, Chris Buyarski, Troy Mielke, Kally Worm, Jim Krueger, Pam Barnes, Mark Saxhaug, Susan Barrott and Dan Bahauddin for making research at Cedar Creek possible. Sarah Hobbie and Peter Reich helped design the FAB experiment, and countless Cedar Creek interns have taken part in the stem growth survey. The Cavender-Bares lab (especially Jake Grossman and Gerard Sap?s), Daniel Stanton, German Vargas G., Artur Stefanski, David Kramer and the UMN Physiological Ecology Group all provided feedback on the results or manuscript. FAB is maintained with support from National Science Foundation under DEB #1234162 to Cedar Creek LTER. Spectral measurements were conducted as part of NSF/NASA DEB #1342778 to J.C.-B. and R.M. S.K. was supported by an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship (grant no. 00039202) and a UMN Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship. R.M. was also supported by Minnesota Agricultural Experiment Station project MIN-42-060.

Funding Information:
University of Minnesota, including Cedar Creek ESR, lies on the ancestral, traditional and contemporary Land of the Dakota. Conversations with Jake Grossman and Laura Williams inspired much of this research. Beth Fallon, German Vargas G., Artur Stefanski, Daniel Stanton and Danielle Way all gave valuable advice about measuring photosynthesis. We are indebted to Cathleen Lapadat, Chris Buyarski, Troy Mielke, Kally Worm, Jim Krueger, Pam Barnes, Mark Saxhaug, Susan Barrott and Dan Bahauddin for making research at Cedar Creek possible. Sarah Hobbie and Peter Reich helped design the FAB experiment, and countless Cedar Creek interns have taken part in the stem growth survey. The Cavender‐Bares lab (especially Jake Grossman and Gerard Sapès), Daniel Stanton, German Vargas G., Artur Stefanski, David Kramer and the UMN Physiological Ecology Group all provided feedback on the results or manuscript. FAB is maintained with support from National Science Foundation under DEB #1234162 to Cedar Creek LTER. Spectral measurements were conducted as part of NSF/NASA DEB #1342778 to J.C.‐B. and R.M. S.K. was supported by an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship (grant no. 00039202) and a UMN Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship. R.M. was also supported by Minnesota Agricultural Experiment Station project MIN‐42‐060.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021 British Ecological Society

Keywords

  • biodiversity and ecosystem function
  • facilitation
  • light competition
  • photoinhibition
  • photoprotection
  • shade tolerance
  • species interactions
  • tree diversity

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