Different leaf cost–benefit strategies of ferns distributed in contrasting light habitats of sub-tropical forests

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Background and Aims Ferns are abundant in sub-tropical forests in southern China, with some species being restricted to shaded understorey of natural forests, while others are widespread in disturbed, open habitats. To explain this distribution pattern, we hypothesize that ferns that occur in disturbed forests (FDF) have a different leaf cost–benefit strategy compared with ferns that occur in natural forests (FNF), with a quicker return on carbon investment in disturbed habitats compared with old-growth forests.

Methods We chose 16 fern species from contrasting light habitats (eight FDF and eight FNF) and studied leaf functional traits, including leaf life span (LLS), specific leaf area (SLA), leaf nitrogen and phosphorus concentrations (N and P), maximum net photosynthetic rates (A), leaf construction cost (CC) and payback time (PBT), to conduct a leaf cost–benefit analysis for the two fern groups.

Key Results The two groups, FDF and FNF, did not differ significantly in SLA, leaf N and P, and CC, but FDF had significantly higher A, greater photosynthetic nitrogen- and phosphorus-use efficiencies (PNUE and PPUE), and shorter PBT and LLS compared with FNF. Further, across the 16 fern species, LLS was significantly correlated with A, PNUE, PPUE and PBT, but not with SLA and CC.

Conclusions Our results demonstrate that leaf cost–benefit analysis contributes to understanding the distribution pattern of ferns in contrasting light habitats of sub-tropical forests: FDF employing a quick-return strategy can pre-empt resources and rapidly grow in the high-resource environment of open habitats; while a slow-return strategy in FNF allows their persistence in the shaded understorey of old-growth forests.

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