Photosynthetic rates influence the population dynamics of understory herbs in stochastic light environments

Andrea C. Westerband*, Carol C. Horvitz

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    8 Citations (Scopus)


    Temporal variability in light from gaps in the tree canopy strongly influences the vital rates of understory plants. From 2012 to 2015, we estimated the size-specific vital rates of two herbs, Calathea crotalifera and Heliconia tortuosa, over a range of light environments. We estimated maximum photosynthetic capacity (Amax) for a subset of individuals each year during three annual censuses, and modelled future size as a linear function of current size (a plant trait that changes ontogenetically), canopy openness (an environmental variable), and Amax (a potentially plastic physiological trait). We estimated what the demographic success would be of a population comprised of individuals with a particular fixed Amax for each of several levels of canopy openness if the environment remained constant, by evaluating corresponding Integral Projection Models and their deterministic growth rates (λ). We then estimated their demographic success in the stochastic light environment (λS) and its elasticities. As light increased, deterministic λ increased for Calathea by 33% but decreased for Heliconia by 52%, and increasing Amax had no effect on λ for Calathea but increased λ for Heliconia in low light. As Amax increased, λS increased for Heliconia, but not Calathea. We also investigated whether photosynthetic rates would influence the elasticities of λS, including its response to perturbation of vital rates in each environment (ESβ), vital rates over all environments (ES), and variability of vital rates among environments (E). ES, E, and ESβ were influenced by Amax for Heliconia but not Calathea. Events that affect some vital rates in high light have a greater impact on overall fitness than events that affect the same vital rates in shady environments, and there is greater potential for selection on traits of large individuals in high light than in low light for Heliconia, while the reverse was true for Calathea. Photosynthetic rates, through their effects on growth, can strongly influence the population dynamics of plants in random light environments, but the magnitude of this effect varies between species. In the species for which fitness was independent of Amax, Calathea, there would be little opportunity for selection on photosynthetic rates.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)370-381
    Number of pages12
    Issue number2
    Early online date21 Nov 2016
    Publication statusPublished - Feb 2017


    • Calathea
    • environment-specific elasticity
    • Heliconia
    • integral projection models
    • photosynthetic capacity
    • shade tolerance
    • vital rates


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