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Effects of monsoon precipitation variability on the physiological response of two dominant C4 grasses across a semiarid ecotone

Thomey, Michell L., Collins, Scott L., Friggens, Michael T., Brown, Renee F., Pockman, William T.
Oecologia 2014 v.176 no.3 pp. 751-762
Bouteloua eriopoda, Bouteloua gracilis, C4 plants, botanical composition, climate change, climate models, ecosystems, grasses, grasslands, monsoon season, photosynthesis, physiological response, rain, soil water, soil water content
For the southwestern United States, climate models project an increase in extreme precipitation events and prolonged dry periods. While most studies emphasize plant functional type response to precipitation variability, it is also important to understand the physiological characteristics of dominant plant species that define plant community composition and, in part, regulate ecosystem response to climate change. We utilized rainout shelters to alter the magnitude and frequency of rainfall and measured the physiological response of the dominant C₄grasses, Bouteloua eriopoda and Bouteloua gracilis. We hypothesized that: (1) the more drought-adapted B. eriopoda would exhibit faster recovery and higher rates of leaf-level photosynthesis (Aₙₑₜ) than B. gracilis, (2) Aₙₑₜwould be greater under the higher average soil water content in plots receiving 30-mm rainfall events, (3) co-dominance of B. eriopoda and B. gracilis in the ecotone would lead to intra-specific differences from the performance of each species at the site where it was dominant. Throughout the study, soil moisture explained 40–70 % of the variation in Aₙₑₜ. Consequently, differences in rainfall treatments were not evident from intra-specific physiological function without sufficient divergence in soil moisture. Under low frequency, larger rainfall events B. gracilis exhibited improved water status and longer periods of C gain than B. eriopoda. Results from this study indicate that less frequent and larger rainfall events could provide a competitive advantage to B. gracilis and influence species composition across this arid–semiarid grassland ecotone.