Plant height is a key functional trait related to aboveground biomass, leaf photosynthesis and plant fitness. However, large-scale geographical patterns in community-average plant height (CAPH) of woody species and drivers of these patterns across different life forms remain hotly debated. Moreover, whether CAPH could be used as a predictor of ecosystem primary productivity is unknown.
We compiled mature height and distributions of 11 422 woody species in eastern Eurasia, and estimated geographic patterns in CAPH for different taxonomic groups and life forms. Then we evaluated the effects of environmental (including current climate and historical climate change since the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM)) and evolutionary factors on CAPH. Lastly, we compared the predictive power of CAPH on primary productivity with that of LiDAR-derived canopy-height data from a global survey.
Geographic patterns of CAPH and their drivers differed among taxonomic groups and life forms. The strongest predictor for CAPH of all woody species combined, angiosperms, all dicots and deciduous dicots was actual evapotranspiration, while temperature was the strongest predictor for CAPH of monocots and tree, shrub and evergreen dicots, and water availability for gymnosperms. Historical climate change since the LGM had only weak effects on CAPH. No phylogenetic signal was detected in family-wise average height, which was also unrelated to the tested environmental factors. Finally, we found a strong correlation between CAPH and ecosystem primary productivity. Primary productivity showed a weaker relationship with CAPH of the tallest species within a grid cell and no relationship with LiDAR-derived canopy height reported in the global survey. Our findings suggest that current climate rather than historical climate change and evolutionary history determine the geographical patterns in CAPH. However, the relative effects of climatic factors representing environmental energy and water availability on spatial variations of CAPH vary among plant life forms. Moreover, our results also suggest that CAPH can be used as a good predictor of ecosystem primary productivity.