Plant traits controlling growth change in response to a drier climate

Lucy Rowland, Rafael S. Oliveira, Paulo R. L. Bittencourt, Andre L. Giles, Ingrid Coughlin, Patricia De Britto Costa, Tomas Domingues, Leandro V. Ferreira, Steel S. Vasconcelos, João A. S. Junior, Alex A. R. Oliveira, Antonio C. L. Costa, Patrick Meir, Maurizio Mencuccini

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Plant traits are increasingly being used to improve prediction of plant function, including plant demography. However, the capability of plant traits to predict demographic rates remains uncertain, particularly in the context of trees experiencing a changing climate.

Here we present data combining 17 plant traits associated with plant structure, metabolism and hydraulic status, with measurements of long‐term mean, maximum and relative growth rates for 176 trees from the world’s longest running tropical forest drought experiment.

We demonstrate that plant traits can predict mean annual tree growth rates with moderate explanatory power. However, only combinations of traits associated more directly with plant functional processes, rather than more commonly employed traits like wood density or leaf mass per area, yield the power to predict growth. Critically, we observe a shift from growth being controlled by traits related to carbon cycling (assimilation and respiration) in well‐watered trees, to traits relating to plant hydraulic stress in drought‐stressed trees.

We also demonstrate that even with a very comprehensive set of plant traits and growth data on large numbers of tropical trees, considerable uncertainty remains in directly interpreting the mechanisms through which traits influence performance in tropical forests.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1363-1374
JournalNew Phytologist
Issue number3
Early online date27 Sep 2020
Publication statusPublished - 1 Feb 2021


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