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FABI Articles : Precipitation, not air temperature, drives functional responses of trees in semi-arid ecosystems

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


Charlotte Grossiord1,*, Sanna Sevanto1, Henry D. Adams2, Adam D. Collins1, Lee T. Dickman1, Natalie McBranch1, Sean T. Michaletz1, Elizabeth A. Stockton1, Miguel Vigil1 and Nate G. McDowell1

Journal of Ecology
DOI: 10.1111/1365-2745.12662Published online 14 SEP 2016

Summary
  1. 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.
  2. In a semi-arid woodland, we assessed the responses in physiological (needle emergence, maximum photosynthesis, stomatal conductance, water use efficiency and shoot elongation) and morphological (needle length and thickness, and leaf mass per area) 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.
  3. 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 water use efficiency, decreased shoot elongation, and induced shorter needles with a higher leaf mass per area. 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.
  4. 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.

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