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Durham University

Department of Biosciences


Publication details for Dr Wayne Dawson

Liu, Y., Dawson, W., Prati, D., Haeuser, E., Feng, Y. & van Kleunen, M. (2016). Does greater specific leaf area plasticity help plants to maintain a high performance when shaded? Annals of Botany 118(7): 1329-1336.

Author(s) from Durham


Background and Aims It is frequently assumed that phenotypic plasticity can be very advantageous for plants, because it may increase environmental tolerance (fitness homeostasis). This should, however, only hold for plastic responses that are adaptive, i.e. increase fitness. Numerous studies have shown shade-induced increases in specific leaf area (SLA), and there is wide consensus that this plastic response optimizes light capture and thus has to be adaptive. However, it has rarely been tested whether this is really the case.

Methods In order to identify whether SLA plasticity does contribute to the maintenance of high biomass of plant species under shaded conditions, a meta-analytical approach was employed. The data set included 280 species and 467 individual studies from 32 publications and two unpublished experiments.

Key Results Plants increased their SLA by 55·4 % on average when shaded, while they decreased their biomass by 59·9 %. Species with a high SLA under high-light control conditions showed a significantly greater ability to maintain biomass production under shade overall. However, in contrast to the expectation of a positive relationship between SLA plasticity and maintenance of plant biomass, the results indicated that species with greater SLA plasticity were less able to maintain biomass under shade.

Conclusions Although a high SLA per se contributes to biomass homeostasis, there was no evidence that plasticity in SLA contributes to this. Therefore, it is argued that some of the plastic changes that are frequently thought to be adaptive might simply reflect passive responses to the environment, or result as by-products of adaptive plastic responses in other traits.