Intraspecific trait variation and phenotypic plasticity mediate alpine plant species response to climate change

Jonathan J. Henn, Vanessa Buzzard, Brian J. Enquist, Aud H. Halbritter, Kari Klanderud, Brian S. Maitner, Sean T. Michaletz, Christine Pötsch, Lorah Seltzer, Richard J. Telford, Yan Yang, Li Zhang, Vigdis Vandvik

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

145 Scopus citations


In a rapidly changing climate, alpine plants may persist by adapting to new conditions. However, the rate at which the climate is changing might exceed the rate of adaptation through evolutionary processes in long-lived plants. Persistence may depend on phenotypic plasticity in morphology and physiology. Here we investigated patterns of leaf trait variation including leaf area, leaf thickness, specific leaf area, leaf dry matter content, leaf nutrients (C, N, P) and isotopes (δ13C and δ15N) across an elevation gradient on Gongga Mountain, Sichuan Province, China. We quantified inter- and intra-specific trait variation and the plasticity in leaf traits of selected species to experimental warming and cooling by using a reciprocal transplantation approach. We found substantial phenotypic plasticity in most functional traits where δ15N, leaf area, and leaf P showed greatest plasticity. These traits did not correspond with traits with the largest amount of intraspecific variation. Plasticity in leaf functional traits tended to enable plant populations to shift their trait values toward the mean values of a transplanted plants’ destination community, but only if that population started with very different trait values. These results suggest that leaf trait plasticity is an important mechanism for enabling plants to persist within communities and to better tolerate changing environmental conditions under climate change.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number1548
JournalFrontiers in Plant Science
StatePublished - 2018


  • Alpine plants
  • Climate change
  • Functional traits
  • Intraspecific variation
  • Phenotypic plasticity

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Plant Science


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