Serrano, H., Antunes, C., Pinto, M.J., Máguas, C., Martins-Loução, M.A. & Branquinho, C. (2015) The ecological performance of metallophyte plants thriving in geochemical islands explained by the Inclusive Niche Hypothesis.Journal of Plant Ecology, 1, 41-45. DOI:10.1093/jpe/rtu007 (IF2015 1,769; Q1 Plant Sciences)
Aims The Inclusive Niche Hypothesis has not been validated for plants using ecophysiological performance. The few experiments have measured growth and competition but not the physiological response of plants. A metallophyte plant that hyperaccumulates aluminium (Al), Plantago almogravensis, showed a defined spatial distribution by occurring mostly on vegetation gaps associated with metalliferous areas (geochemical islands). This case was used to determine, in situ, whether the Inclusive Niche Hypothesis was suitable to explain the extent of the species realized niche.
Methods The vegetation associated with P. almogravensis geochemical islands in the SW coast of Portugal was mapped. The biotic (neighbouring plants) and abiotic (edaphic) components of the niche were correlated with parameters of the plant’s ecological and physiological performances (plant density and cover; leaf C and N concentration and isotopic composition; growth). The results were obtained using image analysis, abundance and morphological measures, isotopic signatures and chemical composition.
Important Findings The species showed better physiological performance where its ecological performance was lower due to trade-offs with environmental constraints. The species’ realized niche was mostly limited by shrub competition and soil Al-toxicity. These limits contribute to explain the rarity status of the species: the species has a poor capacity to compete but, due to an enhanced Al-tolerance and Al-hyperaccumulator trait, has the ability to find refuge in geochemical islands that are too harsh for most other species. This work, based on ecophysiological field studies, provides support for the Inclusive Niche Hypothesis relating to plant species.