Leaf life span spectrum of tropical woody seedlings: effects of light and ontogeny and consequences for survival

Journal Article

Kitajima K; Cordero RA; Wright SJ


Annals of Botany

doi: 10.1093/aob

Background and Aims Leaf life span is widely recognized as a key life history trait associated with herbivory resistance but rigorous comparative data are rare for seedlings. The goal of this study was to examine how light environment affects leaf life span and how ontogenetic development during the first year may influence leaf fracture toughness lamina density and stem density that are relevant for herbivory resistance leaf life span and seedling survival.\n\nMethods Data from three experiments encompassing 104 neotropical woody species were combined. Leaf life span lamina and vein fracture toughness leaf and stem tissue density and seedling survival were quantified for the first-year seedlings at standardized ontogenetic stages in shade houses and common gardens established in gaps and shaded understorey in a moist tropical forest in Panama. Mortality of naturally recruited seedlings till 1 year later was quantified in 800 1-m2 plots from 1994 to 2011.\n\nKey Results Median leaf life span ranged widely among species always greater in shade (ranging from 151 to >1790 d in the understorey and shade houses) than in gaps (115–867 d) but with strong correlation between gaps and shade. Leaf and stem tissue density increased with seedling age whereas leaf fracture toughness showed only a weak increase. All these traits were positively correlated with leaf life span. Leaf life span and stem density were negatively correlated with seedling mortality in shade while gap mortality showed no correlation with these traits.\n\nConclusions The wide spectrum of leaf life span and associated functional traits reflects variation in shade tolerance of first-year seedlings among coexisting trees shrubs and lianas in this neotropical forest. High leaf tissue density is important in enhancing leaf toughness a known physical defence and leaf life span. Both seedling leaf life span and stem density should be considered as key functional traits that contribute to seedling survival in tropical forest understoreys.