Explaining long-term inter-individual growth variation in plant populations: persistence of abiotic factors matters
An unanswered question in ecology is whether the environmental factors driving short-term performance also determine the often observed long-term performance differences among individuals. Here, we analyze the extent to which temporal persistence of spatial heterogeneity in environmental factors can contribute to long-term inter-individual variation in stem length growth. For a natural population of a long-lived understorey palm, we first quantified the effect of several environmental factors on stem length growth and survival. We then performed individual-based simulations of growth trajectories, in which we varied, for two environmental factors: (1) the strength of the effect on stem length growth and (2) the temporal persistence. Short-term variation in stem length growth was strongly driven by light availability. Auto-correlation in light availability and soil pH increased simulated variation in stem length growth among 20-year-old palms to levels similar to the observed variation. Analyses in which we varied both the strength of the effect on stem length growth and the temporal persistence of the environmental factors revealed that a large fraction of observed long-term growth differences can be explained, as long as one of these effects is strong. This implies that environmental factors that are relatively unimportant for short-term performance can still drive long-term performance differences when the environmental variation is sufficiently persistent over time.
Publisher URL: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00442-017-3978-1
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