Understanding variation in plant traits in heterogeneous habitats is important to predict responses to changing environments, but trait-environment associations are poorly known along ecological gradients. We tested the hypothesis that plant architectural complexity increases with habitat complexity along a soil fertility gradient in a Cerrado (Neotropical savanna) area in southeastern Brazil. Plant architecture and productivity (estimated as the total number of healthy infructescences) of Miconia albicans (SW.) Triana were examined in three types of vegetation which together form a natural gradient of increasing soil fertility, tree density and canopy cover: grasslands (campo sujo, CS), shrublands (cerrado sensu strico, CE) and woodlands (cerradão, CD). As expected, plants growing at the CS were shorter and had a lower branching pattern, whereas plants at the CD were the tallest. Unexpectedly, however, CD plants did not show higher architectural complexity compared to CE plants. Higher architectural similarity between CE and CD plants compared to similarity between CS and CE plants suggests reduced expression of functional architectural traits under shade. Plants growing at the CE produced more quaternary shoots, leading to a larger number of infructescences. This higher plant productivity in CE indicates that trait variation in ecological gradients is more complex than previously thought. Nematode-induced galls accounted for fruit destruction in 76.5% infructescences across physiognomies, but percentage of attack was poorly related to architectural variables. Our data suggest shade-induced limitation in M. albicans architecture, and point to complex phenotypic variation in heterogeneous habitats in Neotropical savannas.
Cerrado; plant architecture; nematode galls; shade tolerance; trait-environment association