Defense Date


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


Integrative Life Sciences

First Advisor

Donald Young

Second Advisor

Julie Zinnert


Woody plant expansion has been documented for decades in many different ecosystems, often due to anthropogenic disturbances to the environment and yielding vast changes in ecosystem functioning. While causes and consequences of woody expansion have been well documented, few studies have investigated functional traits of woody species that promote rapid expansion in range. My objective was to determine if hydraulic efficiency confers enhanced photosynthetic efficiency so that functional traits representing light and water use may be possible mechanisms facilitating woody encroachment into grasslands and forest understories. I quantified leaf-level light environment, photosynthetic activity, and hydraulic characteristics of three sympatric broadleaf evergreens of varying leaf life span (Ilex opaca, Kalmia latifolia, and Myrica cerifera) in a deciduous forest understory to understand seasonal intra- and interspecific ranges of broadleaf evergreen physiology. Additionally, I investigated the effects of age on physiological efficiency of M. cerifera across a chronosequence (i.e., space for time substitution) of shrub thicket development in order to understand possible age-related physiological mechanisms facilitating shrub expansion. Lastly, I determined functional traits and resulting physiology that contribute to rapid expansion and thicket formation of an invasive, deciduous, N-fixing shrub, Elaeagnus umbellata, and a native, evergreen, N-fixing shrub M. cerifera. When compared to co-occurring evergreen species, electron transport rate (ETR) of M. cerifera was nearly double that of I. opaca or K. latifolia in summer. Photosynthetic capacity was positively related to hydraulic capacity among understory evergreens. Furthermore, photosynthetic and hydraulic efficiency of M. cerifera remained consistent despite considerable differences in thicket age and development. Both similar and contrasting functional traits of E. umbellata and M. cerifera allowed for enhanced light capture and water movement, and reductions in subcanopy light penetration. Enhanced hydraulic and photosynthetic efficiency relative to co-occurring species contributes to rapid range expansion and thicket formation by promoting enhanced productivity and limiting successful colonization of other species. My results indicate that there may be suites of functional traits linked to expansive success and thicket-formation, yet differences in functional traits between native and invasive species represent alternative strategies leading to rapid growth and thicketization.


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Is Part Of

VCU Theses and Dissertations

Date of Submission

October 2013

Included in

Life Sciences Commons