Acclimation of leaf traits in seasonal light environments: Are non-native species more plastic?

Kelsey A. Martinez, Jason D. Fridley

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

37 Scopus citations


In temperate deciduous forests, understorey light environments vary dramatically throughout spring, summer and autumn due to tree canopy leaf display. This variability in light level is a physiological challenge for understorey species that produce sun-adapted leaves in the spring before being shaded by the tree canopy. Similarly, some understorey species display leaves late into autumn after the tree canopy senesces. Many species in North American deciduous forests with extended leaf display are not native to North America. Since many non-native species have been shown to have greater plasticity than natives, we hypothesized that leaves of non-native species may be more plastic with respect to seasonal light changes than natives, and that this plasticity may allow them to assimilate more carbon in the same environment. We measured leaf traits and photosynthetic capacity of 17 native and 13 non-native understorey shrub species in a common garden in Syracuse, New York, during spring, summer and autumn. We tested for the contribution of seasonal mean and variance (plasticity) of leaf traits to a species’ average photosynthetic rate and total leaf production. We also analysed the extent to which leaf adjustments depended on whether plants continued to produce new leaves over the growing season. Leaf traits of both native and non-native species varied seasonally, but plasticity varied in extent and contribution to overall carbon gain. Non-native species had the highest seasonal plasticity, but, contrary to our hypothesis, such plasticity did not contribute to their overall carbon gain. However, leaf trait plasticity was adaptive for native species that continued to produce leaves throughout the year, primarily due to increases in quantum efficiency and electron transport rate in leaves produced mid-year compared to leaves produced early in the year. Synthesis. Despite large adjustments in leaf traits across seasonal light environments for both native species and non-native species, we found little evidence that leaf-level plasticity drives non-native invasion or contributes strongly to annual carbon gain or productivity in understorey species. Instead, differences in mean leaf traits across seasons are sufficient to explain carbon gain advantages of non-native woody species in deciduous forests.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2019-2030
Number of pages12
JournalJournal of Ecology
Issue number5
StatePublished - Sep 2018


  • deciduous understorey
  • ecophysiology
  • invasion ecology
  • leaf demography
  • non-native species
  • photosynthesis
  • plasticity
  • seasonality

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Ecology
  • Plant Science


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