Leaf nitrogen from first principles: field evidence for adaptive variation with climate

Ning Dong*, Iain Colin Prentice, Bradley J. Evans, Stefan Caddy-Retalic, Andrew J. Lowe, Ian J. Wright

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

31 Citations (Scopus)
10 Downloads (Pure)


Nitrogen content per unit leaf area (Narea) is a key variable in plant functional ecology and biogeochemistry. Narea comprises a structural component, which scales with leaf mass per area (LMA), and a metabolic component, which scales with Rubisco capacity. The co-ordination hypothesis, as implemented in LPJ and related global vegetation models, predicts that Rubisco capacity should be directly proportional to irradiance but should decrease with increases in ci:ca and temperature because the amount of Rubisco required to achieve a given assimilation rate declines with increases in both. We tested these predictions using LMA, leaf δ13C, and leaf N measurements on complete species assemblages sampled at sites on a north-south transect from tropical to temperate Australia. Partial effects of mean canopy irradiance, mean annual temperature, and ci:ca (from δ13C) on Narea were all significant and their directions and magnitudes were in line with predictions. Over 80% of the variance in community-mean (ln) Narea was accounted for by these predictors plus LMA. Moreover, Narea could be decomposed into two components, one proportional to LMA (slightly steeper in N-fixers), and the other to Rubisco capacity as predicted by the co-ordination hypothesis. Trait gradient analysis revealed ci:ca to be perfectly plastic, while species turnover contributed about half the variation in LMA and Narea. Interest has surged in methods to predict continuous leaf-trait variation from environmental factors, in order to improve ecosystem models. Coupled carbon-nitrogen models require a method to predict Narea that is more realistic than the widespread assumptions that Narea is proportional to photosynthetic capacity, and/or that Narea (and photosynthetic capacity) are determined by N supply from the soil. Our results indicate that Narea has a useful degree of predictability, from a combination of LMA and ci:ca - themselves in part environmentally determined - with Rubisco activity, as predicted from local growing conditions. This finding is consistent with a "plant-centred" approach to modelling, emphasizing the adaptive regulation of traits. Models that account for biodiversity will also need to partition community-level trait variation into components due to phenotypic plasticity and/or genotypic differentiation within species vs. progressive species replacement, along environmental gradients. Our analysis suggests that variation in Narea is about evenly split between these two modes.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)481-495
Number of pages15
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 30 Jan 2017

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