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Phenological responses to climate change in communities of plants species with contrasting functional strategies

Pérez-Ramos, I.M., Cambrollé, J., Hidalgo-Galvez, M.D., Matías, L., Montero-Ramírez, A., Santolaya, S., Godoy, Ó.
Environmental and experimental botany 2019
climate, climate change, dry environmental conditions, ecological footprint, flowering, phenology, plant communities, plant growth, population dynamics, prediction, reproduction, stress tolerance, temperature
Understanding why co-occurring plant species show differential phenological sensitivities to climate fluctuations, and more specifically to the joint variation in temperature and precipitation, is critical to make accurate predictions on how climate change could alter community dynamics and ecosystem functioning. However, the role that some relevant functional traits involved in resource uptake and/or stress tolerance could play on these inter-specific differences in phenological sensitivity remains largely unknown. In this study we evaluated experimentally how five co-occurring herbaceous species with contrasting functional strategies respond to current and ongoing climatic scenarios of increased temperature, decreased water availability and both abiotic changes acting interactively. To decompose the direct effect of climate change and the indirect effect of neighbors on plant performance and reproductive phenology, each of the five species was exposed to a density gradient of competitor species. Although the study species were more sensitive to changes in temperature than in water availability, the combined effect of both abiotic cues triggered very heterogeneous responses. Species with higher SLA values were particularly sensitive to climate change, delaying their reproduction and lengthening their flowering period under warmer scenarios while maintaining a high plant growth rate. In contrast, the species with the lowest SLA values exhibited less phenological variability to climate alterations, but they were more strongly affected by neighbor density compared to species with opposite trait values. These species-specific responses to climatic shifts altered the synchrony of phenological events at the community level. The most important changes appeared under the two scenarios of increased temperature, where 4 out of 5 species overlapped their flowering periods. Our findings indicate that the ongoing scenarios of increasing temperature and aridity could disrupt the phenological asynchrony within communities, and highlight the necessity of considering the interactive effects of temperature and precipitation to obtain an overall picture of climate change predictions on plant phenology and population dynamics.