Background and Aims
Plant functional traits are assumed to be adaptive. As selection acts on individuals and not on traits, interpreting the adaptive value of a trait not may be straightforward. For example, productive leaves are associated with fertile environments. However, it is not clear if productive leaves confer an advantage in these habitats, or if they are an advantage as part of a suite of coordinated traits.
Genotypes of Arabidopsis thaliana were grown in high and low nutrient treatments and low, neutral and high pH treatments. Nutrient availability is reduced in acidic or basic soils relative to neutral pH soils. pH treatments were used to alter the availability of resources rather than the amount of resources.
Leaf function (specific leaf area, SLA) and life history (size at reproduction, age at reproduction) were variable across genotypes and were plastic. High nutrient availability induced higher SLA and larger size at reproduction. Genotypes that reproduced at large size in high nutrient conditions at neutral pH had the greatest fruit production. SLA was only indirectly related to fruit production through a causal relationship with rosette size; in high nutrient conditions, plants with high SLA were large at reproduction and had higher fruit production. In high nutrient and high pH treatments, plants were large at reproduction, but large size at reproduction was associated with low fecundity. This suggests that large size is adaptive under high nutrient availability.
Interpreting the adaptive value of functional traits will sometimes only be possible when these traits are considered as a suite of correlated and coordinated traits. Leaf functional traits may be important in defining adaptive strategies in A. thaliana but only through how they affect plant life history. Finally, manipulating soil pH can be a valuable tool in assessing adaptive plasticity on nutrient gradients.