Plants distributed across a wide range of environmental conditions are submitted to differential selective pressures. Long-term selection can lead to the development of adaptations to the local environment, generating ecotypic differentiation. Additionally, plant species can cope with this environmental variability by phenotypic plasticity. In this study, we examine the importance of both processes in coping with environmental heterogeneity in the Mediterranean sclerophyllous cork oak Quercus suber. For this purpose, we measured growth and key functional traits at the leaf level in 9-year-old plants across 2 years of contrasting precipitation (2005 and 2006) in a common garden. Plants were grown from acorns originated from 13 populations spanning a wide range of climates along the distribution range of the species. The traits measured were: leaf size (LS), specific leaf area (SLA), carbon isotope discrimination (Δ13C) and leaf nitrogen content per unit mass (Nmass). Inter-population differences in LS, SLA and Δ13C were found. These differences were associated with rainfall and temperature at the sites of origin, suggesting local adaptation in response to diverging climates. Additionally, SLA and LS exhibited positive responses to the increase in annual rainfall. Year effect explained 28% of the total phenotypic variance in LS and 2.7% in SLA. There was a significant genotype × environment interaction for shoot growth and a phenotypic correlation between the difference in shoot growth among years and the annual mean temperature at origin. This suggests that populations originating from warm sites can benefit more from wet conditions than populations from cool sites. Finally, we investigated the relationships between functional traits and aboveground growth by several regression models. Our results showed that plants with lower SLA presented larger aboveground growth in a dry year and plants with larger leaf sizes displayed larger growth rates in both years. Overall, the study supports the adaptive value of SLA and LS for cork oak under a Mediterranean climate and their potentially important role for dealing with varying temperature and rainfall regimes through both local adaptation and phenotypic plasticity.
- Carbon isotope discrimination
- Natural selection
- Quercus suber
- Specific leaf area
- Water use efficiency