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Longevity of clonal plants: why it matters and how to measure it

de Witte, Lucienne C., Stöcklin, Jürg
Annals of botany 2010 v.106 no.6 pp. 859-870
age structure, asexual reproduction, ecosystems, longevity, plant age, plant communities, population dynamics, sexual reproduction, shoots, somatic mutation, viability, woody plants
BACKGROUND: Species' life-history and population dynamics are strongly shaped by the longevity of individuals, but life span is one of the least accessible demographic traits, particularly in clonal plants. Continuous vegetative reproduction of genets enables persistence despite low or no sexual reproduction, affecting genet turnover rates and population stability. Therefore, the longevity of clonal plants is of considerable biological interest, but remains relatively poorly known. SCOPE: Here, we critically review the present knowledge on the longevity of clonal plants and discuss its importance for population persistence. Direct life-span measurements such as growth-ring analysis in woody plants are relatively easy to take, although, for many clonal plants, these methods are not adequate due to the variable growth pattern of ramets and difficult genet identification. Recently, indirect methods have been introduced in which genet size and annual shoot increments are used to estimate genet age. These methods, often based on molecular techniques, allow the investigation of genet size and age structure of whole populations, a crucial issue for understanding their viability and persistence. However, indirect estimates of clonal longevity are impeded because the process of ageing in clonal plants is still poorly understood and because their size and age are not always well correlated. Alternative estimators for genet life span such as somatic mutations have recently been suggested. CONCLUSIONS: Empirical knowledge on the longevity of clonal species has increased considerably in the last few years. Maximum age estimates are an indicator of population persistence, but are not sufficient to evaluate turnover rates and the ability of long-lived clonal plants to enhance community stability and ecosystem resilience. In order to understand the dynamics of populations it will be necessary to measure genet size and age structure, not only life spans of single individuals, and to use such data for modelling of genet dynamics.