Testing the divergent adaptation of two congeneric tree species on a rainfall gradient using eco-physio-morphological traits. Biotropica, 1–14. doi.org/10.1111/btp.12646
In tropical Africa, evidence of widely distributed genera transcending biomes or habitat boundaries has been reported. The evolutionary processes that allowed these lineages to disperse and adapt into new environments are far from being resolved. To better understand these processes, we propose an integrated approach, based on the eco-physio-morphological traits of two sister species with adjacent distributions along a rainfall gradient. We used wood anatomical traits, plant hydraulics (vulnerability to cavitation, wood volumetric water content, and hydraulic capacitance), and growth data from the natural habitat, in a common garden, to compare species with known phylogeny, very similar morphologically, but occupying contrasting habitats: Erythrophleum ivorense (wet forest) and Erythrophleum suaveolens (moist forest and forest gallery). We identified some slight differences in wood anatomical traits between the two species associated with strong differences in hydraulics, growth, and overall species distribution. The moist forest species, E. suaveolens, had narrower vessels and intervessel pits, and higher vessel cell-wall reinforcement than E. ivorense. These traits allow a high resistance to cavitation and a continuous internal water supply of the xylem during water shortage, allowing a higher fitness during drought periods, but limiting growth. Our results confirm a trade-off between drought tolerance and growth, controlled by subtle adaptations in wood traits, as a key mechanism leading to the niche partitioning between the two Erythrophleum species. The generality of this trade-off and its importance in the diversification of the African tree flora remains to be tested. Our integrated eco-physio-morpho approach could be the way forward.
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