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Precipitation, not air temperature, drives functional responses of trees in semi‐arid ecosystems

Grossiord, Charlotte, Sevanto, Sanna, Adams, Henry D., Collins, Adam D., Dickman, Lee T., McBranch, Natalie, Michaletz, Sean T., Stockton, Elizabeth A., Vigil, Miguel, McDowell, Nate G.
The journal of ecology 2017 v.105 no.1 pp. 163-175
Pinus edulis, air temperature, chronic exposure, climate change, drought, ecosystems, environmental factors, leaves, models, photosynthesis, plant available water, semiarid zones, stomatal conductance, trees, water stress, water use efficiency, woodlands, woody plants
Model scenarios of climate change predict that warming and drought will occur simultaneously in the future in many regions. The capacity of woody species to modify their physiology and morphology in response to environmental conditions is widely recognized, but little is known about the responses of trees to reduced precipitation and increased temperature acting simultaneously. In a semi‐arid woodland, we assessed the responses in physiological (needle emergence, maximum photosynthesis, stomatal conductance, water use efficiency (WUE) and shoot elongation) and morphological (needle length and thickness, and leaf mass per area (LMA)) foliar traits of piñon pine (Pinus edulis) in response to three years of a 45% reduction in precipitation, a 4.8 °C increase in air temperature and their simultaneous effects. A strong change in physiological and morphological traits in response to reduced precipitation was observed. Precipitation reduction delayed needle emergence, decreased photosynthesis and stomatal conductance, increased WUE, decreased shoot elongation and induced shorter needles with a higher LMA. Trees subjected to simultaneous reductions in precipitation and warming demonstrated a similar response. However, atmospheric warming did not induce a response in any of the measured traits. Physiological and morphological traits of trees in this semi‐arid climate were more responsive to changes in soil moisture than air temperature. Long‐term exposure to seasonal drought stress in arid sites may have resulted in strong plastic responses to this first stressor. However, atmospheric warming probably was not experienced as a stress for trees in this warm and dry climate. Overall, our results indicate that in semi‐arid ecosystems where tree functioning is already highly limited by soil water availability, atmospheric warming as anticipated with climate change may have less impact on foliar trait responses than previously thought.