Testing the apparent resistance of three dominant plants to chronic drought on the Colorado Plateau

Journal of Ecology
By: , and 



  1. Many drylands, including the south-western United States, are projected to become more water-limited as these regions become warmer and drier with climate change. Such chronic drought may push individual species or plant functional types beyond key thresholds leading to reduced growth or even mortality. Indeed, recent observational and experimental evidence from the Colorado Plateau suggests that C3 grasses are the most vulnerable to chronic drought, while C4 grasses and C3 shrubs appear to have greater resistance.
  2. The effects of chronic, or press-drought are predicted to begin at the physiological level and translate up to higher hierarchical levels. To date, the drought resistance of C4grasses and C3 shrubs in this region has been only evaluated at the community level and thus we lack information on whether there are sensitivities to drought at lower hierarchical levels. In this study, we tested the apparent drought resistance of three dominant species (Pleuraphis jamesii, a C4 rhizomatous grass; Coleogyne ramosissima, a C3 drought-deciduous shrub; and Ephedra viridis, a C3 evergreen shrub) to an ongoing experimental press-drought (-35% precipitation) by comparing individual-level responses (ecophysiology and growth dynamics) to community-level responses (plant cover).
  3. For all three species, we observed consistent responses across all hierarchical levels:P. jamesii was sensitive to drought across all measured variables, while the shrubsC. ramosissima and E. viridis had little to no responses to the experimental press-drought at any given level.
  4. Synthesis. Our findings suggest that the apparent drought resistance at higher hierarchical levels, such as cover, may serve as good proxies for lower-level responses. Furthermore, it appears the shrubs are avoiding drought, possibly by utilizing moisture at deeper soil layers, while the grasses are limited to shallower layers and must endure the drought conditions. Give this differential sensitivity to drought, a future with less precipitation and higher temperatures may increase the dominance of shrubs on the Colorado Plateau, as grasses succumb to chronic water stress.

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Publication type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Title Testing the apparent resistance of three dominant plants to chronic drought on the Colorado Plateau
Series title Journal of Ecology
DOI 10.1111/1365-2745.12647
Volume 105
Issue 1
Year Published 2016
Language English
Publisher Wiley
Contributing office(s) Southwest Biological Science Center
Description 11 p.
First page 152
Last page 162
Country United States
State Utah
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