Royal Society Publishing

Life History Variation in Plants: An Exploration of the Fast-Slow Continuum Hypothesis

Miguel Franco , Jonathan Silvertown


Several empirical models have attempted to account for the covariation among life history traits observed in a variety of organisms. One of these models, the fast-slow continuum hypothesis, emphasizes the role played by mortality at different stages of the life cycle in shaping the large array of life history variation. Under this scheme, species can be arranged from those suffering high adult mortality levels to those undergoing relatively low adult mortality. This differential mortality is responsible for the evolution of contrasting life histories on either end of the continuum. Species undergoing high adult mortality are expected to have shorter life cycles, faster development rates and higher fecundity than those experiencing lower adult mortality. The theory has proved accurate in describing the evolution of life histories in several animal groups but has previously not been tested in plants. Here we test this theory using demographic information for 83 species of perennial plants. In accordance with the fast-slow continuum, plants undergoing high adult mortality have shorter lifespans and reach sexual maturity at an earlier age. However, demographic traits related to reproduction (the intrinsic rate of natural increase, the net reproductive rate and the average rate of decrease in the intensity of natural selection on fecundity) do not show the covariation expected with longevity, age at first reproduction and life expectancy at sexual maturity. Contrary to the situation in animals, plants with multiple meristems continuously increase their size and, consequently, their fecundity and reproductive value. This may balance the negative effect of mortality on fitness, thus having no apparent effect in the sign of the covariation between these two goups of life history traits.

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