Genetic differentiation and plasticity interact along temperature and precipitation gradients to determine plant performance under climate change
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1. Understanding species' abilities to cope with changing climate is a key prerequisite for predicting the future fates of species and ecosystems. Despite considerable research on species responses to changing climate, we still lack understanding of the role of specific climatic factors, and their interactions, for species responses. We also lack understanding of the relative importance of plasticity vs. adaptation in determining the observed responses.
2. As a model, we use a dominant clonal grass, Festuca rubra, originating from a natural climatic grid of 12 localities in western Norway that allows factorial combinations of temperature (mean growing season temperatures ranging from 6·5 to 10·5 °C) and precipitation (annual precipitation ranging from 600 to 2700 mm). We grew clones from all populations in four growth chambers representing the four climatic extremes in the climate grid (warm/cold × wet/dry).
3. Genetic differentiation and direction and magnitude of plastic responses vary systematically among populations throughout the climatic grid. Growth-related plant traits are highly plastic and their degree of plasticity depends on their origin. In contrast, the traits reflecting species' foraging strategy are not plastic but vary with the climate of origin. Levels of plasticity of growth-related traits and genetically differentiated foraging traits thus might constrain local populations' ability to cope with novel climates.
4. Synthesis. Shifts in temperature and precipitation, at the scale and direction expected for the region in the next century, are likely to dramatically affect plant performance. This study illustrates how the interplay between genetic differentiation and plasticity in response to both temperature and precipitation will affect the specific responses of species to climate change. Such complex responses will affect how climate-change impacts scale up to the community and ecosystem levels. Future studies thus need to specifically consider regionally relevant climate-change projections, and also explore the role of genetic differentiation and plasticity and how this varies within local floras. Our study also demonstrates that even widespread species with seemingly broad climatic niches may strongly differ in their population performance and plasticity. Climate-change studies should therefore not be limited to rare and restricted species.