Does the stress-gradient hypothesis hold water? Disentangling spatial and temporal variation in plant effects on soil moisture in dryland systems

Functional Ecology
By: , and 



  1. The nature of the relationship between water limitation and facilitation has been one of the most contentious debates surrounding the stress-gradient hypothesis (SGH), which states that plant-plant interactions shift from competition to facilitation with increasing environmental stress.
  2. We take a closer look at the potential role of soil moisture in mediating plant-plant interaction outcomes by assessing effects of climate and soil texture on plant modulation of soil moisture.
  3. Using an empirically-parameterized soil moisture model, we simulated soil moisture dynamics beneath shrubs and in un-vegetated coarse and fine soils for 1000 sites in the Western United States with <700 mm mean annual precipitation. This threshold reflects the transition from dryland (<600 mm precipitation) to mesic ecosystems.
  4. Positive effects of shrubs on shallow soil moisture (i.e. the difference between shrub and interspace soil moisture) decreased along the aridity gradient when long-term average conditions were considered, contrary to expectations based on the SGH. Negative effects of shrubs on deeper soil moisture also increased with aridity.
  5. However, when extreme years were considered, positive effects of shrub on soil moisture were greatest at intermediate points along the spatial aridity gradient, consistent with a hump-backed model of plant-plant interactions.
  6. When viewed through time within a site, shrub effects on shallow soil moisture were positively related to precipitation, with more complex relationships exhibited in deeper soils
  7. Taken together, the results of this simulation study suggest that plant effects on soil moisture are predictable based on relatively general relationships between precipitation inputs and differential evaporation and transpiration rates between plant and interspace microsites that are largely driven by temperature. In particular, this study highlights the importance of differentiating between temporal and spatial variation in weather and climate, respectively, in determining plant effects on available soil moisture. Rather than focusing on the somewhat coarse-scale predictions of the SGH, it may be more beneficial to explicitly incorporate plant effects on soil moisture into predictive models of plant-plant interaction outcomes in drylands.

Study Area

Additional publication details

Publication type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Title Does the stress-gradient hypothesis hold water? Disentangling spatial and temporal variation in plant effects on soil moisture in dryland systems
Series title Functional Ecology
DOI 10.1111/1365-2435.12592
Volume 30
Year Published 2016
Language English
Publisher Wiley
Contributing office(s) Southwest Biological Science Center
Description 10 p.
First page 10
Last page 19
Country United States
Online Only (Y/N) N
Additional Online Files (Y/N) N
Google Analytic Metrics Metrics page