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Physiological mechanisms drive differing foliar calcium content in ferns and angiosperms


Recent evidence points to ferns containing significantly lower contents of foliar calcium and other cations than angiosperms. This is especially true of more ancient ‘non-polypod’ fern lineages, which predate the diversification of angiosperms. Calcium is an important plant nutrient, the lack of which can potentially slow plant growth and litter decomposition, and alter soil invertebrate communities. The physiological mechanisms limiting foliar calcium (Ca) content in ferns are unknown. While there is a lot we do not know about Ca uptake and transport in plants, three physiological processes are likely to be important. We measured transpiration rate, cation exchange capacity, and leaching loss to determine which process most strongly regulates foliar Ca content in a range of fern and co-occurring understory angiosperm species from a montane Hawaiian rainforest. We found higher instantaneous and lifetime (corrected for leaf lifespan) transpiration rates in angiosperms relative to ferns. Ferns preferentially incorporated Ca into leaves relative to strontium, which suggests that root or stem cation exchange capacity differs between ferns and angiosperms, potentially affecting calcium transport in plants. There were no differences in foliar Ca leaching loss between groups. Among the physiological mechanisms measured, foliar Ca was most strongly correlated with leaf-level transpiration rate and leaf lifespan. This suggests that inter-specific differences in a leaf’s lifetime transpiration may play a significant role in determining plant nutrition.

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We thank Radika Bhaskar, Laura Schreeg, Erika Sudderth, Lawren Sack’s laboratory group, Fernando Valladares, and two anonymous reviewers for comments on the article and Peter Vitousek, Heraldo Farrington, Linda Pratt, and Doug Turner for logistical, field and laboratory support. We greatly appreciate the support of the staff and volunteers at Resources Management Division, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

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Correspondence to Jennifer L. Funk.

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Communicated by Fernando Valladares.

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Funk, J.L., Amatangelo, K.L. Physiological mechanisms drive differing foliar calcium content in ferns and angiosperms. Oecologia 173, 23–32 (2013).

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  • Transpiration
  • Calcium:strontium
  • Cation exchange capacity
  • Cation leaching
  • Decomposition
  • Leaf lifespan