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Improving our understanding of environmental controls on the distribution of C₃ and C₄ grasses

Pau, Stephanie, Edwards, Erika J., Still, Christopher J.
Global change biology 2013 v.19 no.1 pp. 184-196
air temperature, biogeography, functional diversity, global change, grasses, grasslands, models, niches, phylogeny, trees
A number of studies have demonstrated the ecological sorting of C₃ and C₄ grasses along temperature and moisture gradients. However, previous studies of C₃ and C₄ grass biogeography have often inadvertently compared species in different and relatively unrelated lineages, which are associated with different environmental settings and distinct adaptive traits. Such confounded comparisons of C₃ and C₄ grasses may bias our understanding of ecological sorting imposed strictly by photosynthetic pathway. Here, we used MaxEnt species distribution modeling in combination with satellite data to understand the functional diversity of C₃ and C₄ grasses by comparing both large clades and closely related sister taxa. Similar to previous work, we found that C₄ grasses showed a preference for regions with higher temperatures and lower precipitation compared with grasses using the C₃ pathway. However, air temperature differences were smaller (2 °C vs. 4 °C) and precipitation and % tree cover differences were larger (1783 mm vs. 755 mm, 21.3% vs. 7.7%, respectively) when comparing C₃ and C₄ grasses within the same clade vs. comparing all C₄ and all C₃ grasses (i.e., ignoring phylogenetic structure). These results were due to important differences in the environmental preferences of C₃ BEP and PACMAD clades (the two main grass clades). Winter precipitation was found to be more important for understanding the distribution and environmental niche of C₃ PACMADs in comparison with both C₃ BEPs and C₄ taxa, for which temperature was much more important. Results comparing closely related C₃–C₄ sister taxa supported the patterns derived from our modeling of the larger clade groupings. Our findings, which are novel in comparing the distribution and niches of clades, demonstrate that the evolutionary history of taxa is important for understanding the functional diversity of C₃ and C₄ grasses, and should have implications for how grasslands will respond to global change.