Is leaf-level photosynthesis related to plant success in a highly productive grassland?

TitleIs leaf-level photosynthesis related to plant success in a highly productive grassland?
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication1998
AuthorsMcAllister, CA, Knapp, AK, Maragni, LA
Pagination40 -46
Accession NumberKNZ00656
KeywordsCompetition, grassland, photosynthesis, Plant cover, tallgrass prairie

We addressed the question: “Are short-term, leaf-level measurements of photosynthesis correlated with long-term patterns of plant success?” in a productive grassland where interspecific competitive interactions are important. To answer this question, seasonal patterns of leaf-level photosynthesis were measured in 27 tallgrass prairie species growing in sites that differed in species composition and productivity due to differences in fire history. Our specific goals were to assess the relationship between gas exchange under field conditions and success (defined as aerial plant cover) for a wide range of species, as well as for these species grouped as dominant and sub-dominant grasses, forbs, and woody plants. Because fire increases productivity and dominance by grasses in this system, we hypothesized that any relationship between photosynthesis and success would be strongest in annually burned sites. We also predicted that regardless of fire history, the dominant species (primarily C4 grasses) would have higher photosynthetic rates than the less successful species (primarily C3 grasses, forbs and woody plants). Because forbs and woody species are less abundant in annually burned sites, we expected that these species would have lower photosynthetic rates in annually burned than in infrequently burned sites. As expected, the dominant C4␣grasses had the highest cover on all sites, relative to␣other growth forms, and they had the highest maximum and seasonally averaged photosynthetic rates (17.6 ± 0.42 μmol m−2 s−1). Woody species had the lowest average cover as well as the lowest average photosynthetic rates, with subdominant grasses and forbs intermediate in both cover and photosynthesis. Also as predicted, the highest overall photosynthetic rates were found on the most productive annually burned site. Perhaps most importantly, a positive relationship was found between leaf-level photosynthesis and cover for a core group of species when data were combined across all sites. These data support the hypothesis that higher instantaneous rates of leaf-level photosynthesis are indicative of long-term plant success in this grassland. However, in contrast to our predictions, the subdominant grasses, forbs and woody species on the annually burned site had higher photosynthetic rates than in the less frequently burned sites, even though their average cover was lower on annually burned sites, and hence they were less successful. The direct negative effect of fire on plant cover and species-specific differences in the availability of resources may explain why photosynthesis was high but cover was low in some growth forms in annually burned sites.