Relationships between body size, reproduction, and abundance in natural vegetation
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According to traditional theory, superior competitive ability in plants generally requires a relatively large plant body size. Yet, within natural, crowded vegetation, most resident species are small, and species size distributions are right-skewed at virtually all scales. I aim to provide a potential explanation for this paradox: small species are able to coexist with and outcompete larger species because smaller species have greater ‘reproductive economy’—the ability for some seed production despite severe size suppression when under intense competition. Tracey and Aarssen (2011) found an isometric relationship between minimum reproductive threshold size (MRTS) and maximum resident plant size (MAX); however, a more accurate measure of maximum potential body size (MPBS) was needed (without competition), as typically the effects of competition are size-dependent. An isometric relationship, similar to Tracey and Aarssen (2011) was seen. Tracey and Aarssen (2011) also found that, contrary to the predictions of traditional theory, larger species were not more abundant (based on plot occupancy) in an old-field community. A more accurate measure of abundance was obtained by locating random 1 x 1 m plots and counting the number of ramets for each species in the plot. A significant negative relationship was seen between abundance and MRTS. This suggests that the most abundant plants in communities are not those that are bigger, or smaller, they are those with the smallest MRTSs. To test whether this relationship exists in other habitats, plots were located in different old-field, shrub-land and wood-land communities. Ramets for each species within the plots were counted, and the largest plant of each species was measured. Significant negative relationships between abundance and MAX plant body size were seen in the shrub-land and woodland sites; however, no relationship was detected in this old-field site. The data support the idea that smaller species have greater reproductive economy, but the mechanism remains unknown. These results suggest that a smaller plant body size results in more effective gene transmission into future generations in all habitat types and stages of succession and indicates a suggested paradigm shift in the predicted selection effects of competition on the evolution of plant body size.