Elevation gradients are frequently used as space-for-time substitutions to infer species’ trait responses to climate change. However, studies rarely investigate whether trait responses to elevation are widespread or population specific within a species, and the relative genetic and plastic contributions to such trait responses may not be well understood. Here, we examine plant trait variation in the dominant woody shrub, Rhododendron maximum, along elevation gradients in three populations in the South Central Appalachian Mountains, USA, in both field and common garden environments. We ask the following: (1) do plant traits vary along elevation? (2) do trait responses to elevation differ across populations, and if so, why? and (3) does genetic differentiation or phenotypic plasticity drive trait variation within and among populations? We found that internode length, shoot length, leaf dry mass, and leaf area varied along elevation, but that these responses were generally unique to one population, suggesting that trait responses to environmental gradients are population-specific. A common garden experiment identified nogenetic basis to variation along elevation or among populations in any trait, suggesting that plasticity drives local and regional trait variation and may play a key role in the persistence of plant species such as R. maximum with contemporary climate change. Overall, our findings highlight the importance of examining multiple locations in future elevation studies and indicate that, for a given plant species, the magnitude of trait responses to global climate change may vary by location.
Pfennigwerth, Alix A., Joseph K. Bailey, Jennifer A. Schweitzer. “Trait Variation Along Elevation Gradients in a Dominant Woody Shrub is Population-Specific and Driven by Plasticity,” AoB Plants plx027 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1093/aobpla/plx027.