Variation in species-level plant functional traits over wetland indicator status categories

Miles E. McCoy-Sulentic, Thomas E. Kolb, David M. Merritt, Emily C. Palmquist, Barbara E. Ralston, Daniel A. Sarr

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

24 Scopus citations


Wetland indicator status (WIS) describes the habitat affinity of plant species and is used in wetland delineations and resource inventories. Understanding how species-level functional traits vary across WIS categories may improve designations, elucidate mechanisms of adaptation, and explain habitat optima and niche. We investigated differences in species-level traits of riparian flora across WIS categories, extending their application to indicate hydrologic habitat. We measured or compiled data on specific leaf area (SLA), stem specific gravity (SSG), seed mass, and mature height of 110 plant species that occur along the Colorado River in Grand Canyon, Arizona. Additionally, we measured leaf δ13C, δ15N, % carbon, % nitrogen, and C/N ratio of 56 species with C3 photosynthesis. We asked the following: (i) How do species-level traits vary over WIS categories? (ii) Does the pattern differ between herbaceous and woody species? (iii) How well do multivariate traits define WIS categories? (iv) Which traits are correlated? The largest trait differences among WIS categories for herbaceous species occurred for SSG, seed mass, % leaf carbon and height, and for woody species occurred for height, SSG, and δ13C. SSG increased and height decreased with habitat aridity for both woody and herbaceous species. The δ13C and hence water use efficiency of woody species increased with habitat aridity. Water use efficiency of herbaceous species increased with habitat aridity via greater occurrence of C4 grasses. Multivariate trait assemblages differed among WIS categories. Over all species, SLA was correlated with height, δ13C, % leaf N, and C/N; height was correlated with SSG and % leaf C; SSG was correlated with % leaf C. Adaptations of both herbaceous and woody riparian species to wet, frequently inundated habitats include low-density stem tissue. Adaptations to drier habitats in the riparian zone include short, high-density cavitation-resistant stem tissue, and high water use efficiency. The results enhance understanding about using traits to describe plant habitat in riparian systems.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)3732-3744
Number of pages13
JournalEcology and Evolution
Issue number11
StatePublished - Jun 2017


  • Arizona
  • Grand Canyon
  • inundation
  • plant trait
  • riparian
  • water use efficiency

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Ecology
  • Nature and Landscape Conservation


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