Patterns in leaf traits of leguminous and non-leguminous dominant trees along a rainfall gradient in Ghana

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Abstract

Aims

Both dominance distribution of species and the composition of the dominant species determine the distribution of traits within community. Leaf carbon (C) and nitrogen (N) isotopic composition are important leaf traits, and such traits of dominant species are associated with ecosystem C, water and N cycling. Very little is known how dominant species with distinct traits (e.g. N-fixing leguminous and non-leguminous trees) mediate resource utilization of the ecosystems in stressful environment.

Methods

Leaves of 81 dominant leguminous and non-leguminous trees were collected in forest (moist semi-deciduous and dry semi-deciduous ecosystems) and savanna (costal savanna, Guinean savanna and west Sudanian savanna ecosystems) areas and the transitional zone (between the forest and the savanna) along the transect from the south to the north of Ghana. We measured leaf traits, i.e. leaf δ13C, leaf δ15N, leaf water content, leaf mass per area (LMA) and C and N concentration. Correlation analyses were used to examine trait–trait relationships, and relationships of leaf traits with temperature and precipitation. We used analysis of covariance to test the differences in slopes of the linear regressions between legumes and non-legumes.

Important Findings

Leaf δ13C, δ15N, leaf water content and LMA did not differ between leguminous and non-leguminous trees. Leaf N concentration and C:N ratio differed between the two groups. Moreover, leaf traits varied significantly among the six ecosystems. δ13C values were negatively correlated with annual precipitation and positively correlated with mean annual temperature. In contrast, leaf δ15N of non-leguminous trees were positively correlated with annual precipitation and negatively correlated with mean annual temperature. For leguminous trees, such correlations were not significant. We also found significant coordination between leaf traits. However, the slopes of the linear relationships were significantly different between leguminous and non-leguminous trees. Our results indicate that shifts in dominant trees with distinct water-use efficiency were corresponded to the rainfall gradient. Moreover, leguminous trees, those characterized with relative high water-use efficiency in the low rainfall ecosystems, were also corresponded to the relative high N use efficiency. The high proportion of leguminous trees in the savannas is crucial to mitigate nutrient stress.

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