Physiological and ecological adaptations of altitudinal gradients reveal alpine plants' ecological and evolutionary responses to environmental changes. Here we quantitatively investigated the variation in the foliar physiological and morphological traits of alpine tree species (Abies fargesii) along the altitudinal gradient in the Taibai Mountains, China. We collected the needle samples of Taibai fir (A. fargesii) from seven sites at altitudes of 2550, 2650, 2750, 2850, 2950, 3050 and 3150 m, respectively, and measured the 12 foliar physiological and morphological traits. Each set of needle sample (100 needles) was randomly selected from the upper- third of A. fargesii canopies.
The results showed that leaf mass per unit area (LMA), stable carbon isotope composition (δ13C), stomatal rows (SR), leaf carbon concentration per unit area (Carea), leaf nitrogen concentration per unit leaf mass (Nmass) and area (Narea) linearly increase significantly while stomatal density (SD), number of stomata per unit nitrogen concentration (St/N) and per unit leaf mass (St/LM) decrease with the altitudes raise. Moreover, all measured traits presented both strong correlations and significantly linear relationships with the main climate factors such as the mean temperature, rainfall and relative humidity during the growing season as well as the altitudes, except for leaf free water concentration (LWC), leaf carbon concentration per unit leaf mass (Cmass) and C: N ratio.
The patterns of foliar traits in response to altitudes imply that the alpine plants need higher cost (e.g. higher nutrient concentration) to adapt to the harsher environments along altitudinal gradient. Moreover, our results show that the variation patterns of the leaf traits for A. fargesii plants should be driven by the interactions of multi-climate factors because the abiotic factors that directly influence the growth of plants covary with the increasing altitudes.