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A reassessment of the strategies of plants which cope with shortages of resources

, : A reassessment of the strategies of plants which cope with shortages of resources. Perspectives in Plant Ecology Evolution & Systematics 1(1): 3-31

An attempt is made to review the whole range of plants able to cope with shortages of mineral nutrients, water or light for at least a substantial part of their lives. In the past insufficient attention has been paid to quantitative measurements of the tolerance of various species for lack of resources. Growth rate at a low level of supply and mere survival are the variables to be considered. Problems in defining tolerance arise where a collection of species shows a negative correlation between survival at a low level of supply and growth rate under these conditions; in at least some circumstances a balance between survival and growth rate is important. Plants coping with lack of major resources display one of three strategies: 'low-flexibility', 'switching' or 'gearing-down'. The essential features of the low-flexibility strategy are long-lived leaves, low maximum relative growth rates, and inflexibility of form and of gas exchange rates when resource-shortage is relieved, both in seedlings and in adults. Plants which show the switching strategy display the low-flexibility strategy as young seedlings, but are flexibile in form as older plants, and commonly have high relative growth rates then. The gearing-down strategy is based on an ability to reduce strongly the respiration rate when resources are in short supply, both as seedlings and as adult. In some cases this involves shedding of parts which would otherwise consume respiratory substrate. Plants showing this strategy have some characteristics which are the opposite of those shown by plants with the low-flexibility strategy: short-lived leaves, and high flexibility in form and in rates of gas exchange. All three strategies are represented among plants tolerant of the most extreme shortages of nutrients, water and light. It is concluded that while ecologists should attempt to reduce the complexities of nature to an oligo-dimensional framework of generalizing ideas, it is not reasonable to expect that any very simple scheme - such as might be represented by three or four reference points in one plane - will have generality on a world scale.


DOI: 10.1078/1433-8319-00049

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