Differentiation in populations of Hordeum spontaneum Koch along a gradient of environmental productivity and predictability: Plasticity in response to water and nutrient stress
Plants from four populations of Hordeum spontaneum originating in distinct environments of Israel were compared for stress induced phenotypic plasticity. The environments ranged along a gradient of increasing rainfall amount and predictability from low (desert) to moderate (semisteppe batha) to high (Mediterranean grassland and mountain, the latter also experiencing frost stress). The plants were exposed to a set of four treatments: no stress (optimum water and nutrients), water, nutrient and both water and nutrient stress. Plants from the four populations (or ecotypes) exhibited different patterns of plasticity in response to the different stresses (water and nutrients) and in different trait categories (reproductive, fitness and resource allocation). The importance of plasticity in response to water stress appears to decrease, and to nutrient stress appears to increase along the increasing rainfall gradient. The mountain ecotype, growing in an area with high potential productivity (amount of rainfall) but experiencing periodic frosts, was the most plastic among ecotypes in resource allocation under both water and nutrient stress, but exhibited low plasticity in other trait categories. In contrast, the desert ecotype had low plasticity in resource allocation under water stress and the lowest plasticity among the four ecotypes in all trait categories in response to nutrient stress. The ecotype originating in Mediterranean grassland, a predictable and most favourable environment, was highly plastic in fitness and allocation traits in response to low nutrient levels which is likely to occur due to competition in productive environment. We discuss the observed differences in ecotype plasticity as part of their environmentally induced adaptive 'strategies'. We found no support for the hypothesis that plants originating in environments with greater variation and unpredictability are more plastic. © 2002 The Linnean Society of London.