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Functional traits and their plasticity predict tropical trees regeneration niche even among species with intermediate light requirements

Laurans M., Martin O., Nicolini E.A., Vincent G.. 2012. Journal of Ecology, 100 (6) : p. 1440-1452.

DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-2745.2012.02007.x

Niche differentiation is a key issue in the current debate on community assembly mechanisms. In highly diverse moist tropical forests, tree species sensitivity to canopy openness is thought to be a major axis in niche differentiation. In the past, the syndrome of traits driving the demographic trade-off involved in the niche-based theory of coexistence has always been established among species situated at the two extremities of the shade-tolerance gradient, even though most tropical tree species have intermediate light requirements. In addition, trait plasticity has seldom been linked to tropical tree species distribution along environmental gradients. This article examines covariations between leaf traits, whole-plant traits and niche parameters among 14 tree species with intermediate light requirements in French Guiana and across a range of canopy openness. Each functional trait measured under field conditions was characterized by a median value and a degree of plasticity expressed under contrasting light regimes. Niche differentiation was characterized in terms of spatial light gradient. We first examined covariations between functional traits then explored to what degree the median value and plasticity in functional traits could predict light niche characteristics at the sapling stage and the ontogenetic change in light availability estimated by adult stature. Leaf mass per area (LMA) was positively correlated with leaf life span (LLS); species with higher LMA and higher LLS displayed lower diameter growth rates (GRs) and lower responsiveness to canopy gap at both whole-plant and population levels. This proved that the relationships previously established over a broader range of species held true within the narrow range of the light requirements covered. Height GR plasticity accounted for 49% of the variation in light niche optimum. LMA plasticity, unlike LLS plasticity, was significantly correlated with light niche breadth and adult stature. Synthesis. This study demonstrates the relevance of considering the phenotypic plasticity in functional traits in community ecology, particularly for quantifying breadth of species distribution over environmental gradients. Our findings did not support Hubbell's hypothesis of functional equivalence and suggest that even a rather subtle variation in forest canopy disturbance promotes the coexistence of tropical tree species.

Mots-clés : forêt tropicale humide; composition botanique; surface foliaire; compétition végétale; besoin en lumière; distribution des populations; régénération naturelle; croissance; physiologie végétale; adaptation; espacement; phénotype; guyane française; france

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