Leaf anatomical traits of non-arboreal savanna species along a gradient of tree encroachment

<div><p>ABSTRACT In the Brazilian savanna (Cerrado of Brazil), fire suppression has transformed typical savanna formations (TS) into forested savanna (FS) due to the phenomenon of encroachment. Under encroachment, non-arboreal plants begin to receive less light due to greater tree density and canopy closure. Here we aim to evaluate if leaf anatomical traits of non-arboreal species differ according to the degree of tree encroachment at the Assis Ecological Station - São Paulo, Brazil. To this end, we evaluated leaf tissue thickness and specific leaf area (SLA) in representative non-arboreal species occurring along a gradient of tree encroachment. Leaves of TS species showed a trend towards xeromorphism, with traits reported to facilitate survival under high luminosity, such as thick leaves, thick epidermis and mesophyll, and low SLA. In contrast, FS species exhibited mesomorphic leaves, with thin mesophyll and high SLA, which are able to capture diffuse light in denser environments. Thus, non-arboreal understory species with mesomorphic leaf traits should be favored in environments with denser vegetation in contrast to typical savanna species. The results suggest that typical non-arboreal savanna species would not survive under tree encroachment due to the low competitiveness of their leaf anatomical strategies in shady environments.</p></div>