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Evolutionary relationships between drought-related traits and climate shape large hydraulic safety margins in western North American oaks.


Quantitative knowledge of xylem physical tolerance limits to dehydration is essential to understanding plant drought tolerance but is lacking in many long-vessel angiosperms. We examine the hypothesis that a fundamental association between sustained xylem water transport and downstream tissue function should select for xylem that avoids embolism in long-vessel trees by quantifying xylem capacity to withstand air entry of western North American oaks (Quercus spp.). Optical visualization showed that 50% of embolism occurs at water potentials below -2.7 MPa in all 19 species, and -6.6 MPa in the most resistant species. By mapping the evolution of xylem vulnerability to embolism onto a fossil-dated phylogeny of the western North American oaks, we found large differences between clades (sections) while closely related species within each clade vary little in their capacity to withstand air entry. Phylogenetic conservatism in xylem physical tolerance, together with a significant correlation between species distributions along rainfall gradients and their dehydration tolerance, suggests that closely related species occupy similar climatic niches and that species' geographic ranges may have shifted along aridity gradients in accordance with their physical tolerance. Such trends, coupled with evolutionary associations between capacity to withstand xylem embolism and other hydraulic-related traits, yield wide margins of safety against embolism in oaks from diverse habitats. Evolved responses of the vascular system to aridity support the embolism avoidance hypothesis and reveal the importance of quantifying plant capacity to withstand xylem embolism for understanding function and biogeography of some of the Northern Hemisphere's most ecologically and economically important plants.

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