Seedling root morphology and biomass allocation of 62 tropical tree species in relation to drought- and shade-tolerance

L. Markesteijn, L. Poorter

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279 Citations (Scopus)


Water availability is the main determinant of species' distribution in lowland tropical forests. Species' occurrence along water availability gradients depends on their ability to tolerate drought. To identify species' traits underlying drought-tolerance we excavated first year seedlings of 62 dry and moist forest tree species at the onset of the dry season. We evaluate how morphological seedling traits differ between forests, and whether functional groups of species can be identified based on trait relations. We also compare seedling traits along independent axes of drought and shade-tolerance to assess a hypothesized trade-off. Seedlings of dry forest species improve water foraging capacity in deep soil layers by an increased below-ground biomass allocation and by having deep roots. They minimize the risk of cavitation by making dense stems, and reduce transpiration by producing less leaf tissue. Moist forest seedlings have large leaf areas and a greater above-ground biomass, to maximize light interception, and long, cheap, branched root systems, to increase water and nutrient capture. Associations among seedling traits reveal three major drought strategies: (i) evergreen drought-tolerant species have high biomass investment in enduring organs, minimize cavitation and minimize transpiration to persist under dry conditions; (ii) drought-avoiding species maximize resource capture during a limited growing season and then avoid stress with a deciduous leaf habit in the dry season; (iii) drought-intolerant species maximize both below- and above-ground resource capture to increase competitiveness for light, but are consequently precluded from dry habitats. We found no direct trade-off between drought- and shade-tolerance, because they depend largely on different morphological adaptations. Drought-tolerance is supported by a high biomass investment to the root system, whereas shade-tolerance is mainly promoted by a low growth rate and low SLA. Synthesis. We conclude that there are three general adaptation strategies of drought-tolerance, which seemingly hold true across biomes and for different life forms. Drought- and shade-tolerance are largely independent from one another, suggesting a high potential for niche differentiation, as species' specialization can occur at different combinations of water and light availability
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)311-325
JournalJournal of Ecology
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2009


  • dry forest
  • rain-forest
  • wood density
  • moist forest
  • growth-rate
  • physiological processes
  • niche differentiation
  • plant-communities
  • climate-change
  • water-stress


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