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Light accelerates plant responses to warming


Competition for light has profound effects on plant performance in virtually all terrestrial ecosystems. Nowhere is this more evident than in forests, where trees create environmental heterogeneity that shapes the dynamics of forest-floor communities13. Observational evidence suggests that biotic responses to both anthropogenic global warming and nitrogen pollution may be attenuated by the shading effects of trees and shrubs49. Here we show experimentally that tree shade is slowing down changes in below-canopy communities due to warming. We manipulated levels of photosynthetically active radiation, temperature and nitrogen, alone and in combination, in a temperate forest understorey over a 3-year period, and monitored the composition of the understorey community. Light addition, but not nitrogen enrichment, accelerated directional plant community responses to warming, increasing the dominance of warmth-preferring taxa over cold-tolerant plants (a process described as thermophilization6,1012). Tall, competitive plants took greatest advantage of the combination of elevated temperature and light. Warming of the forest floor did not result in strong community thermophilization unless light was also increased. Our findings suggest that the maintenance of locally closed canopy conditions could reduce, at least temporarily, warming-induced changes in forest floor plant communities.

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Figure 1: Community-level effects of light, warming and nitrogen addition in forest understoreys.
Figure 2: Effects of light, warming and nitrogen addition on abundance-weighted mean traits of understorey plant communities.


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We are grateful to L. Willems, R. Gruwez, K. Ceunen, G. De bruyn, P. Miljkovic, L. Nelen, K. Van Nieuland and N. Verdoodt for field and laboratory assistance. Support for this work was provided by FWO postdoctoral fellowships to P.D.F. and A.D.S., and an ERC Consolidator Grant 614839 - PASTFORWARD to K.V.

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P.D.F., A.D.S., D.A.C., M.H. and K.V. designed the research; P.D.F. and A.D.S. performed the research; P.D.F. and F.R.S. analysed the data; all authors wrote the paper.

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Correspondence to Pieter De Frenne.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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De Frenne, P., Rodríguez-Sánchez, F., De Schrijver, A. et al. Light accelerates plant responses to warming. Nature Plants 1, 15110 (2015).

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