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Regional signatures of plant response to drought and elevated temperature across a desert ecosystem

Seth M. Munson, Esteban H. Muldavin, Jayne Belnap, Debra P.C. Peters, John P. Anderson, M. Hildegard Reiser, Kirsten Gallo, Alicia Melgoza-Castillo, Jeffrey E. Herrick, Tim A. Christiansen
Ecology 2013 v.94 no.9 pp. 2030-2041
Bouteloua eriopoda, air temperature, atmospheric precipitation, climate change, climatic factors, drought, drought tolerance, ecosystems, grasses, grasslands, perennials, plant communities, plant response, shrubs, species diversity, summer, vegetation cover, winter, woody plants, Chihuahuan Desert
We paired results from climate and vegetation monitoring at multiple sites across the Chihuahuan Desert over the last century to determine which plant species and functional types may be the most sensitive to climate change. We found that the dominant perennial grass, Bouteloua eriopoda, and species richness had non-linear responses to summer precipitation, decreasing more in dry summers than increasing with wet summers. Dominant shrub species responded differently to the seasonality of precipitation and drought, but winter precipitation best explained changes in the cover of woody vegetation in upland grasslands. Temperature explained additional variability of changes in cover of dominant and subdominant plant species. Using a novel empirically-based approach, we identified “climate pivot points” that were indicative of shifts from increasing to decreasing plant cover over a range of climatic conditions. Reductions in cover of annual and several perennial plant species, in addition to declines in species richness below the long-term summer precipitation mean across plant communities indicate a decrease in the productivity for all but the most drought tolerant perennial grasses and shrubs in the Chihuahuan Desert. Overall, our regional synthesis of long-term data provides a robust foundation for forecasting future shifts in the composition and structure of plant assemblages in the largest North American warm desert.