In tropical moist forests, seasonal drought limits plant survival, productivity and diversity. Drought-tolerance mechanisms of tropical species should reflect the maximum seasonal water deficits experienced in a particular habitat. We investigated stem xylem vulnerability to cavitation in nine tropical species with different life histories and habitat associations. Stem xylem vulnerability was scored as the xylem water potential causing 50 and 75% loss of hydraulic conductivity (P50 and P75, respectively). Four shade-tolerant shrubs ranged from moderately resistant (P50=-1.9 MPa for Ouratea lucens Kunth. Engl.) to highly resistant to cavitation (P50=-4.1 MPa for Psychotria horizontalis Sw.), with shallow-rooted species being the most resistant. Among the tree species, those characteristic of waterlogged soils, Carapa guianensis Aubl., Prioria copaifera Griseb. and Ficus citrifolia Mill., were the most vulnerable to cavitation (P50=-0.8 to -1.6 MPa). The wet-season, deciduous tree, Cordia alliodora (Ruiz and Pav.) Oken., had resistant xylem (P50=-3.2 MPa), whereas the dry-season, deciduous tree, Bursera simaruba (L.) Sarg. was among the most vulnerable to cavitation (P50=-0.8 MPa) of the species studied. For eight out of the nine study species, previously reported minimum seasonal leaf water potentials measured in the field during periods of drought correlated with our P50 and P75 values. Rooting depth, deciduousness, soil type and growth habit might also contribute to desiccation tolerance. Our results support the functional dependence of drought tolerance on xylem resistance to cavitation.
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