Xylem hydraulic and photosynthetic function of Gnetum (Gnetales) species from Papua New Guinea
Gnetum (Gnetales) species are suggested to be unique extant gymnosperms that have acquired high photosynthetic and transpiration capacities as well as greater xylem hydraulic capacity and efficiency compared with all other extant gymnosperms. This is because Gnetum is the only extant gymnosperm lineage that combines vessels, broad pinnate-veined leaves and an ecological distribution in wet, productive lowland tropical rainforest habitats. Yet, field-based observations on the group's ecophysiological performance are lacking. To test a hypothesis that Gnetum species are ecophysiologically analogous to light-demanding woody tropical angiosperms, stem xylem hydraulic performance, photosynthesis and stomatal conductance were investigated in Gnetum as compared with a diverse group of co-occurring woody plants in a lowland tropical rainforest. It was found that Gnetum species combined low photosynthetic capacity and low stomatal conductances with a low stem water transport ability. The physiological observations are consistent with the general occurrence of Gnetum species in shady, primary forest habitats. These results on Gnetum ecophysiology indicate that the coupling of vessels, broad pinnate-veined leaves and the liana habit do not signal the evolution of a highly opportunistic, light-demanding life history in gymnosperms.