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Genotypic and environmental variation in specific leaf area in a widespread Alpine plant after transplantation to different altitudes

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Specific leaf area (SLA) is an important plant functional trait as it is an indicator of ecophysiological characteristics like relative growth rate, stress tolerance and leaf longevity. Substantial intraspecific variation in SLA is common and usually correlates with environmental conditions. For instance, SLA decreases with increasing altitude, which is understood as adjustment to temperature. It is generally assumed that intraspecific variation is mostly the result of environmentally induced phenotypic plasticity, but genetic effects may also be present, due to local adaptation or genetic drift. In this study, genotypic and environmental effects on SLA were experimentally separated for the widespread Alpine bell flower Campanula thyrsoides by transplanting plants to three common gardens at contrasting altitudes (600, 1,235 and 1,850 m a.s.l.). Seeds were sampled from 18 populations in four phylogeographic regions within the European Alps. A strong plastic response was observed: SLA decreased with increasing altitude of the common gardens (22.0% of variation). The phylogeographic regions were differentiated in SLA in the common gardens (10.1% of variation), indicating that SLA is at least partly genetically determined. Plants from the six easternmost populations experienced a submediterranean climate and showed decreased SLA values in the three common gardens compared to populations to the west, which may be explained as adaptation to drought. Within these submediterranean populations, SLA decreased with altitude of origin in two out of three common gardens. Concluding, SLA shows strong phenotypic plasticity as well as substantial genetic effects, the latter probably being the result of adaptation to local conditions rather than genetic drift.

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We are grateful to Serge Aubert, director of the Station Alpine Joseph Fourier (Jardin Botanique Alpin du Lautaret), for his help in collecting plant material in the western Alps, to Guy Villaume, Olivier Bignucolo and Lucienne de Witte for help in the field, to Christine Arnold and Stephan Burkhard for weighing the leaf material, to Jens Paulsen for help with obtaining climate data and to Gemeinde Haldenstein and the CCES BioChange project of the ETH Zürich for enabling the use of field sites at Mt. Calanda. We thank Reinout Havinga, Martijn Herber, Rubén Milla and an anonymous reviewer for constructive comments on previous versions of the manuscript. This study has been supported financially by the Swiss National Science Foundation, project no. 3100AO-116785 to Jürg Stöcklin. The experiment in this study complies with the current laws of the country in which they were performed.

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Correspondence to J. F. Scheepens.

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Communicated by Meelis Partel.

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Scheepens, J.F., Frei, E.S. & Stöcklin, J. Genotypic and environmental variation in specific leaf area in a widespread Alpine plant after transplantation to different altitudes. Oecologia 164, 141–150 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00442-010-1650-0

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  • Altitude of origin
  • Campanula thyrsoides
  • Genetic effect
  • Local adaptation
  • Phenotypic plasticity