To face summer drought and wildfire in Mediterranean-type ecosystems, plants adopt different strategies that involve considerable rearrangements of biomass allocation and physiological activity. This paper analyses morphological and physiological traits in seedlings of three oak species (Quercus ilex, Quercus trojana and Quercus virgiliana) co-occurring under natural conditions. The aim of this study was to evaluate species-specific characteristics and the response of these oak seedlings to drought stress and fire treatment. Seedlings were kept in a growth chamber that mimicked natural environmental conditions. All three species showed a good degree of tolerance to drought and fire treatments. Differences in specific biomass allocation patterns and physiological traits resulted in phenotypic differences between species. In Q. ilex, drought tolerance depended upon adjustment of the allocation pattern. Q. trojana seedlings undergoing mild to severe drought presented a higher photosystem II (PSII) efficiency than control seedlings. Moreover, Q. trojana showed a very large root system, which corresponded to higher soil area exploitation, and bigger leaf midrib vascular bundles than the other two species. Morphological and physiological performances indicated Q. trojana as the most tolerant to drought and fire. These characteristics contribute to a high recruitment potential of Q. trojana seedlings, which might be the reason for the dominance of this species under natural conditions. Drought increase as a result of climate change is expected to favour Q. trojana, leading to an increase in its spatial distribution.
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