Main content area

Hydraulic compensation in northern Rocky Mountain conifers: does successional position and life history matter?

Sala, Anna
Oecologia 2006 v.149 no.1 pp. 1-11
Abies lasiocarpa, Larix occidentalis, Pinus albicaulis, Pinus ponderosa, Pseudotsuga menziesii, conifers, dry matter partitioning, ecological function, leaf area, leaf conductance, leaves, life history, sapwood, shade tolerance, stomata, stomatal conductance, trees, water supply, Rocky Mountain region
As trees grow tall and the resistance of the hydraulic pathway increases, water supply to foliage may decrease forcing stomata to close and CO₂ uptake to decline. Several structural (e.g. biomass allocation) and physiological adjustments, however, may partially or fully compensate for such hydraulic constraints and prevent limitations on CO₂ uptake and growth. The degree to which trees compensate for hydraulic constraints as they grow tall may depend on the costs and benefits associated with hydraulic compensation according to their ecology and life history. Because later successional Rocky Mountain conifers are more shade tolerant, optimization of CO₂ uptake as trees grow tall and shade increases may confer greater benefits than in earlier successional species. If so, higher compensation for hydraulic constraints is expected in later successional species relative to co-occurring earlier successional species. I have examined height-related changes of crown stomatal conductance on a leaf area basis (G LA) and leaf to sapwood ratios (A L:A S) for five conifer species in the northern Rocky Mountains. Species were arranged in pairs, each pair consisting of an early and late successional species. For high elevations I used, respectively, whitebark pine (Pinus albicaulis) and subalpine fir (Abies lasiocarpa); for mid-elevations, western larch (Larix occidentalis) and Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii); for lower elevations, ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa) and Douglas-fir. A L:A S either decreased (subalpine fir, ponderosa pine), remained constant (Douglas-fir, western larch) or increased (whitebark pine) with tree height. As hypothesized, earlier successional species (ponderosa pine, whitebark pine and western larch) exhibited significantly stronger decreases of G LA with tree height relative to their later successional pairs (Douglas-fir and subalpine fir), which fully compensated for height-related hydraulic constraints on G LA. A life history approach that takes into account the optimization of size- and species-specific ecological functions may also help researchers better understand biomass allocation and hydraulic function in trees.