Seedling traits predict drought-induced mortality linked to diversity loss

Authors: Susan Harrison and Marina LaForgia

Trait-based approaches are increasingly used to predict ecological consequences of climate change, yet seldom have solid links been established between plant traits and observed climate-driven community changes. Most analyses have focused on aboveground adult plant traits, but in warming and drying climates, root traits may be critical, and seedlings may be the vulnerable stage. Relationships of seedling and root traits to more commonly measured traits and ecological outcomes are poorly known. In an annual grassland where winter drought-induced seedling mortality is driving a long-term decline in native diversity, using a field experiment during the exceptionally dry winter of 2017–2018, we found that seedling mortality was higher and growth of seedlings and adults were lower in unwatered than watered sites. Mortality of unwatered seedlings was higher in species with shorter seedling roots, and also in species with the correlated traits of small seeds, high seedling specific leaf area (SLA), and tall seedlings. Adult traits varied along an axis from short-stature, high SLA and foliar N, and early flowering to the opposite values, and were only weakly correlated with seedling traits and seedling mortality. No evidence was found for adaptive plasticity, such as longer roots or lower SLA in unwatered plants. Among these species, constitutive variation in seedling root length explained most of the variation in survival of a highly vulnerable life stage under winter drought. Selective loss of species with high adult SLA, observed in this community and others under drought stress, may be the byproduct of other correlated traits.

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