Variation in Leaf Traits Across a Precipitation Gradient in Coastal Sand Dunes in Yucatan Peninsula

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Environmental filters play an important role in plant community assembly. Evaluating spatial variation in functional traits across environmental gradients may help determine the environmental filters that play a role in community assembly and how plant communities respond to prevailing environmental conditions. In this study, we evaluated spatial variation in leaf traits (size, thickness, specific area and dry matter content) of coastal sand dune plant communities across 16 sites along a precipitation gradient in the Yucatan Peninsula. We described community-wide trait variation in terms of dispersion and dominant values across the gradient in order to answer the following questions: Which environmental filters explain variation in leaf traits? What ecological strategies, in terms of leaf economics, do these environmental filters favour? Mean specific leaf area and dispersion in leaf thickness tended to be lower in drier sites, suggesting that plants invest more biomass per leaf (a conservative strategy) and become more succulent as aridity increases. Contrary to expectation, leaf size increased with proximity to the coastline and dry matter content was significantly greater in the wettest region. Therefore, variation in these leaf traits content cannot be explained by the precipitation gradient. We have shown that predictable variation in some functional leaf traits can be found, even at small scales within the same vegetation zone in coastal sand dunes. Our study supports the notion that variation in water availability can be an important driver of functional trait distribution in the plant communities of some arid environments.