Springer Online Journal Archives 1860-2000
Summary This study is part of a series of investigations on the influence of altitude on structure and function of plant leaves. Unlike most other mountain areas, the Southern Alps of New Zealand provide localities where physiologically effective moisture stress occurs neither at high nor at low elevation, but the changes in temperature and radiation with elevation are similar or even steeper than in most other regions. In comparison with results from other mountains, where moisture may impair plant functioning at low elevation, this study allows an estimation of the relative role of water for the expression of various leaf features typically associated with alpine plants. Maximum leaf diffusive conductance (g), leaf nitrogen content (LN), stomatal density (n) and distribution, as well as area (A), thickness (d) and specific area (SLA) of leaves were studied. Three different plant life forms were investigated over their full altitudinal range (m): trees, represented by Nothofagus menziesii (1,200 m), ericaceous dwarf shrubs (1,700 m), and herbaceous plants of the genus Ranunculus (2,500 m). In all three life forms g, LN, and n increased, while SLA and A decreased with elevation. Recent investigations have found similar trends in other mountains from the temperate zone, but the changes are larger in New Zealand than elsewhere. Herbs show the greatest differences, followed by shrubs and then trees. It is concluded that g is dependent upon light climate rather than water supply, whereas SLA and related structural features appear to be controlled by the temperature regime, as they show similar altitudinal changes under different light and moisture gradients. The higher leaf nitrogen content found at high elevations in all three life forms, suggests that metabolic activity of mature leaves is not restricted by low nitrogen supply at high altitude. In general, the leaves of herbaceous plants show more pronounced structural and functional changes with altitude than the leaves of shrubs and trees.
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