Identifying functional groups of trees in west Gulf Coast forests (USA): A tree-ring approach

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Ecological Applications
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A dendroclimatic study of important tree species in the west Gulf Coastal Plain region, USA, was conducted to evaluate how climate affects tree radial growth in this southeasternmost section of the Eastern Deciduous Forest/Southern Evergreen Forest. We established an east-west transect from western Louisiana to central Texas that crossed the western range limits of each of 16 species and developed a network of 104 annual tree ring-width chronologies from 38 sites. Of the 104 chronologies, 99 series from the genera Pinus, Quercus, and Fagus were analyzed using rotated principal components analysis (RPCA). The RPCA revealed the presence of three robust phylogenetic signals in the tree-ring patterns, which partitioned the data into the Pinus species (PISP), the oak species in the black oak subgenus Erythrobalanus (QUBO), and the oak species in the white oak subgenus Leucobalanus (QUWO). The Fagus chronologies (FAGR) also loaded most highly with the QUWO series, resulting in a combined QUWO/FAGR factor. This partitioning occurred even though tree species within each phylogenetic group came from contrasting xeric and mesic sites and, in the case of the QUWO/FAGR factor, from different genera. Only in the xeric western range limits of the transect did site location begin to override the phylogenetic groupings. Consequently, responses to climate based on genetics appeared to be more important than ecological and site characteristics in determining the tree-ring patterns of the sampled species overall.We tested this hypothesis by independently modeling the dendroclimate signals in the tree-ring chronologies using monthly precipitation and maximum temperature data. The resulting climate correlation functions were subjected to RPCA as before. As we did so, the same phylogenetic groups emerged. All of the chronologies were drought sensitive. However, the phylogenetic differences in climate response were related to differences in the timing of the peak monthly responses to climate and to the differing patterns of climate response in the months prior to the current growing season.The findings of this study indicate that there is an underlying organizing principle based on genetics that determines how certain phylogenetic groups of. trees respond to climate in a way that is largely independent of the site environment. At a coarse level, these phylogenetic distinctions persist even at the most stressed sites near tree range limits, though distinctions within genera start to break down. These findings therefore suggest functional groupings of tree species, which can be used in vegetation/climate models that attempt to predict realistically how such forests will respond to future climate changes.


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