Extreme climate events are transforming plant communities in the desert Southwest of the United States. Abundant precipitation in 1998 associated with El Ni??o Southern Oscillation (ENSO) stimulated exceptional alien annual plant production in the Mojave Desert that fueled wildfires in 1999. Exacerbated by protracted drought, 80% of the burned Yucca brevifolia, a long-lived arborescent monocot, and 26% of unburned plants died at Joshua Tree National Park by 2004. Many burned plants < 1 m tall died immediately, and survival of all but the tallest, oldest plants declined to the same low level by 2004. Postfire sprouting prolonged survival, but only at the wetter, high-elevation sites. During succeeding dry years, herbaceous plants were scarce, and individuals of Thomomys bottae (pocket gopher) gnawed the periderm and hollowed stems of Y. brevifolia causing many of them to topple. Thomomys bottae damage reduced plant survivorship at low-elevation, unburned sites and diminished survival of burned plants in all but the driest site, which already had low survival. Accentuated ENSO episodes and more frequent wildfires are expected for the desert Southwest and will likely shift Y. brevifolia population structure toward tall, old adults with fewer opportunities for plant recruitment, thus imperiling the persistence of this unique plant community.
Additional publication details
Desert wildfire and severe drought diminish survivorship of the long-lived Joshua Tree (Yucca brevifolia; Agavaceae)