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College of Forest Resources and Environmental Science


Despite the importance of tropical forests to global carbon balance, our understanding of how tropical plant physiology will respond to climate warming is limited. In addition, the contribution of tropical forest understories to global carbon cycling is predicted to increase with rising temperatures, however, in situ warming studies of tropical forest plants to date focus only on upper canopies. We present results of an in situ field-scale +4°C understory infrared warming experiment in Puerto Rico (Tropical Responses to Altered Climate Experiment; TRACE). We investigated gas exchange responses of two common understory shrubs, Psychotria brachiata and Piper glabrescens, after exposure to 4 and 8 months warming. We assessed physiological acclimation in two ways: (1) by comparing plot-level physiological responses in heated versus control treatments before and after warming, and (2) by examining physiological responses of individual plants to variation in environmental drivers across all plots, seasons, and treatments. P. brachiata has the capacity to up-regulate (i.e., acclimate) photosynthesis through broadened thermal niche and up-regulation of photosynthetic temperature optimum (Topt) with warmer temperatures. P. glabrescens, however, did not upregulate any photosynthetic parameter, but rather experienced declines in the rate of photosynthesis at the optimum temperature (Aopt), corresponding with lower stomatal conductance under warmer daily temperatures. Contrary to expectation, neither species showed strong evidence for respiratory acclimation. P. brachiata down-regulated basal respiration with warmer daily temperatures during the drier winter months only. P. glabrescens showed no evidence of respiratory acclimation. Unexpectedly, soil moisture, was the strongest environmental driver of daily physiological temperature responses, not vegetation temperature. Topt increased, while photosynthesis and basal respiration declined as soils dried, suggesting that drier conditions negatively affected carbon uptake for both species. Overall, P. brachiata, an early successional shrub, showed higher acclimation potential to daily temperature variations, potentially mitigating negative effects of chronic warming. The negative photosynthetic response to warming experienced by P. glabrescens, a mid-successional shrub, suggests that this species may not be able to as successfully tolerate future, warmer temperatures. These results highlight the importance of considering species when assessing climate change and relay the importance of soil moisture on plant function in large-scale warming experiments.

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© 2020 Carter, Wood, Reed, Schwartz, Reinsel, Yang and Cavaleri. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) and the copyright owner(s) are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms. Publisher’s version of record:

Publication Title

Frontiers in Forests and Global Change

Creative Commons License

Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.


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