Research Summary: Developmental Plasticity in Protea as an Evolutionary Response to Environmental Clines in the Cape Floristic Region
Local adaptation along steep environmental gradients likely contributes to plant diversity in the Cape Region of South Africa, yet existing analyses of trait divergence are limited to static measurements of functional traits rather than trajectories of individual development. We explore whether five taxa of evergreen shrubs (Protea section Exsertae) differ in their developmental trajectories and capacity for plasticity using two environmentally-distinct common gardens in South Africa. We measured seedlings in the summer-dry season and winter-wet season of each of two consecutive years to characterize ontogeny and plasticity within years, as same-age leaf cohorts mature, and between years, i.e., from leaf one cohort to the next. We compared patterns of development between gardens to assess whether trait trajectories are programmed versus plastic and examined whether developmental differences covaried with characteristics of a seedling’s home environment. We detected plasticity in developmental trajectories for leaf area, stomatal size, stomatal pore index, and to a limited extent specific leaf area, but not for stomatal density. We showed that the species growing in the harshest environments exhibits both the smallest increase in leaf area between years and the least change in SLA and photosynthetic rates as leaves age within years. These results show that within this clade, species have diverged in developmental trajectories and plasticity as well as in mean trait values. Some of these differences may be associated with adaptation to cold and drought stress within an environmentally-complex region.