Impact of drought on desert shrubs: Effects of seasonality and degree of resource island development

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Large areas of semiarid grasslands in the southwestern United States have been virtually replaced by shrubs during the past century. Understanding the causes and consequences of such vegetation dynamics requires that we elucidate the interplay between external forces of change (e.g., climate, human impacts) and the internal forces within these ecosystems that foster resilience and/or stability. Several conceptual models of arid ecosystems address this interplay by including the potential role of autogenic shrub effects on ecosystem processes, which lead to the formation of 'resource islands' and tend to promote shrub persistence. Specifically, during the process of shrub establishment and maturation, the cycling of nutrients is progressively confined to the zones of litter accumulation beneath shrubs, while bare intershrub spaces become increasingly nutrient poor. As shrub resource islands develop, there is increased interception and stemflow by shrub canopies, confining infiltration of nutrient-enriched rainfall directly beneath the shrubs; the barren intershrub spaces generate overland flow, soil erosion by wind and water, and nutrient losses. These islands are preferred sites for the regeneration of shrubs and herbaceous plants and are correlated with spatial variation in soil microbial populations and soil microfauna that promote nutrient cycling. If further changes in the transition between grassland and shrubland are to be correctly predicted - or if we wish to intervene and redirect transitions - we must develop a greater mechanistic understanding of the structural and functional relationships between shrubs and the resource islands associated with them. We conducted a 3-yr field study in the Jornada Basin of southern New Mexico to explore the relationships between seasonal manipulations of soil water and its impact on soil nutrient dynamics of resource islands and shrub growth and physiology. At our study site, where total annual precipitation is ~230 mm (~65% falls during the summer period), we simulated seasonal drought in summer (1 June-30 September) and winter/spring (1 October-31 May) by constructing large rainfall-exclusion shelters over shrub resource islands at different stages of development. Our experiment tests two principal hypotheses. The first is that the two major shrub species in the Jornada Basin, creosotebush (Larrea tridentata) and mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa), have different growth phenologies, rooting patterns, and physiological responses to resource availability (primarily water). The second is that different size classes of shrubs ('small' and 'large') represent distinct stages of resource island development (i.e., 'young' and 'mature,' respectively) and, hence, different stabilities - that is, as islands develop, their associated shrubs become less coupled to short-term fluctuations in precipitation and more resistant to long-term drought or climate shifts. With regard to the first hypothesis, we conclude that the two species are relatively similar in function despite the different phenological 'strategies' of Larrea (evergreen) and Prosopis (winter deciduous). In the absence of drought, both species exhibited maximal rates of shoot and root growth, as well as high photosynthesis and transpiration, in late spring. This remained as the period for maximal growth and physiological activity for Prosopis shrubs that experienced drought in either summer or winter/spring. On the other hand, Larrea shrubs that experienced drought in winter/spring had maximal growth and activity shifted to the summer period, and in the absence of drought, Larrea shrubs also exhibited high physiological activity during the summer (especially following high rainfall). Thus, Larrea appears to have a greater capacity for shifting its activity patterns to alternate periods to take advantage of changes in resource availability. Shrubs of both species appeared well adapted to withstand season-long droughts. Mechanisms for survival include the following capacities: (1) to shift growth and physiological activity to utilize different temporal moisture (Larrea); (2) to utilize different levels of soil water (both species); (3) to carry out limited physiological activity and growth during drought (especially Larrea); and (4) to compensate for some negative impacts of drought through enhanced physiology (especially Prosopis) and growth (especially Larrea) in the season following drought. With regard to the second hypothesis, we again found more similarities than differences between the different aged (young vs. mature) islands. The stage of maturity of a resource island complex did not seem to be a significant factor to the growth and physiological activity of the shrub.





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Reynolds, JF, RA Virginia, PR Kemp, AG De Soyza and DC Tremmel (1999). Impact of drought on desert shrubs: Effects of seasonality and degree of resource island development. Ecological Monographs, 69(1). pp. 69–106. 10.1890/0012-9615(1999)069[0069:IODODS]2.0.CO;2 Retrieved from

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James F. Reynolds

Professor Emeritus

Integrated assessment of complex human-environmental systems; Land degradation and desertification in global drylands; Conceptual frameworks and models to advance the science of dryland development

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