Tree foliar chemistry in an African savanna and its relation to life history strategies and environmental filters

Matthew S. Colgan, Roberta E. Martin, Claire A. Baldeck, Gregory P. Asner

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

7 Scopus citations


Understanding the relative importance of environment and life history strategies in determining leaf chemical traits remains a key objective of plant ecology. We assessed 20 foliar chemical properties among 12 African savanna woody plant species and their relation to environmental variables (hillslope position, precipitation, geology) and two functional traits (thorn type and seed dispersal mechanism). We found that combinations of six leaf chemical traits (lignin, hemi-cellulose, zinc, boron, magnesium, and manganese) predicted the species with 91% accuracy. Hillslope position, precipitation, and geology accounted for only 12% of the total variance in these six chemical traits. However, thorn type and seed dispersal mechanism accounted for 46% of variance in these chemical traits. The physically defended species had the highest concentrations of hemi-cellulose and boron. Species without physical defense had the highest lignin content if dispersed by vertebrates, but threefold lower lignin content if dispersed by wind. One of the most abundant woody species in southern Africa, Colophospermum mopane, was found to have the highest foliar concentrations of zinc, phosphorus, and δ13C, suggesting that zinc chelation may be used by this species to bind metallic toxins and increase uptake of soil phosphorus. Across all studied species, taxonomy and physical traits accounted for the majority of variability in leaf chemistry.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere0124078
JournalPloS one
Issue number5
StatePublished - May 20 2015
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)
  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)
  • General


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