Specialization to extremely low-nutrient soils limits the nutritional adaptability of plant lineages

Document Type

Journal Article


University of Chicago Press


School of Science / Centre for Ecosystem Management




Originally published as: Verboom, G. A., Stock, W. D., & Cramer, M. D. (2017). Specialization to extremely low-nutrient soils limits the nutritional adaptability of plant lineages. The American Naturalist, 189(6), pp. 684-699. Article available here.


Specialization to extreme selective situations promotes the acquisition of traits whose coadaptive integration may compromise evolutionary flexibility and adaptability. We test this idea in the context of the foliar stoichiometry of plants native to the South African Cape. Whereas foliar concentrations of nitrogen, phosphorus (P), potassium (K), calcium, magnesium, and sodium showed strong phylogenetic signal, as did the foliar ratios of these nutrients to P, the same was not true of the corresponding soil values. In addition, although foliar traits were often related to soil values, the coefficients of determination were consistently low. These results identify foliar stoichiometry as having a strong genetic component, with variation in foliar nutrient concentrations, especially [P] and [K], being identified as potentially adaptive. Comparison of stoichiometric variation across 11 similarly aged clades revealed consistently low foliar nutrient concentrations in lineages showing specialization to extremely low-nutrient fynbos heathlands. These lineages also display lower rates of evolution of these traits as well as a reduced tendency for foliar [P] to track soil [P]. Reduced evolutionary lability and adaptability in the nutritional traits of fynbos-specialist lineages may explain the floristic distinctness of the fynbos flora and implies a reduced scope for edaphically driven ecological speciation.