Seedling Stage Strategies as a Means of Habitat Specialization in Herbaceous Plants

The regeneration niche has been little investigated in studies of community assembly and plant distribution. We examined adaptive associations between seedling traits and habitat specialization. Two habitat contrasts were investigated across several evolutionary lineages of angiosperms: species specialized to forest vs. open habitats and to dry vs. wet habitats. We also tested whether effects of shade and drought vary independently or, alternatively, if shade may amplify effects on drought-stressed plants. Seedling response in terms of growth rate, height, slenderness, specific leaf area (SLA) and degree of elongation (longest internode; petiole or leaf-sheath depending on species' morphology) to light and watering treatments was assessed. We used a factorial design involving three light regimes and two watering frequencies. The open-shaded habitat contrast and the dry-wet habitat contrast were investigated using six and five pairs of congeneric species, respectively. The congeneric species pair design controlled for confounding effects of evolutionary history prior to divergence in habitat specialization. Seedling growth rate generally decreased with shade and reduced watering frequency. Plant height was generally largest at intermediate light. Specialization to shaded habitats was associated with a more conservative growth strategy, i.e. showing a more modest growth response to increasing light. Species from all habitats showed the highest relative elongation at intermediate light, except for the moist-habitat species, for which elongation increased with shade. Contrary to our expectations, species from dry habitats grew bigger than species from moist habitats in all treatments. SLA responded to the light treatment, but not to watering regime. The contrasting light and moisture conditions across habitats appear to not have selected for differences in SLA. We conclude that seedling phase strategies of resource allocation in temperate herbs contribute to their habitat specialization. Habitat-specific seedling strategies and trade-offs in response to resource availability and environmental conditions may be important to adaptive specialization.