Plant responses to climate in the Cape Floristic Region of South Africa: evidence for adaptive differentiation in the Proteaceae.
Local adaptation along environmental gradients may drive plant species radiation within the Cape Floristic Region (CFR), yet few studies examine the role of ecologically based divergent selection within CFR clades. In this study, we ask whether populations within the monophyletic white protea clade (Protea section Exsertae, Proteaceae) differ in key functional traits along environmental gradients and whether differences are consistent with local adaptation. Using seven taxa, we measured trait-environment associations and selection gradients across 35 populations of wild adults and their offspring grown in two common gardens. Focal traits were leaf size and shape, specific leaf area (SLA), stomatal density, growth, and photosynthetic rate. Analyses on wild and common garden plants revealed heritable trait differences that were associated with gradients in rainfall seasonality, drought stress, cold stress, and less frequently, soil fertility. Divergent selection between gardens generally matched trait-environment correlations and literature-based predictions, yet variation in selection regimes among wild populations generally did not. Thus, selection via seedling survival may promote gradient-wide differences in SLA and leaf area more than does selection via adult fecundity. By focusing on the traits, life stages, and environmental clines that drive divergent selection, our study uniquely demonstrates adaptive differentiation among plant populations in the CFR.