, Volume 153, Issue 4, pp 787-798

First online:

Seasonal variations in moisture use in a piñon–juniper woodland

  • A. G. WestAffiliated withDepartment of Biology, University of UtahDepartment of Integrative Biology, University of California Berkeley Email author 
  • , K. R. HultineAffiliated withDepartment of Biology, University of Utah
  • , K. G. BurtchAffiliated withDepartment of Biology, University of Utah
  • , J. R. EhleringerAffiliated withDepartment of Biology, University of Utah

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In water-limited environments of the intermountain region of North America, summer precipitation may play a role in the structure and function of aridland communities and ecosystems. This study examined the potential reliance on summer precipitation of two widespread, coexisting woody species in the southwestern United States, Pinus edulis Englmn. (Colorado piñon) and Juniperus osteosperma (Torr) Little (Utah juniper). The current distributions of P. edulis and J. osteosperma are highly suggestive of different dependencies on summer rainfall. We hypothesized that P. edulis was dependent on summer precipitation, utilizing summer precipitation even during extremely dry summers, whereas J. osteosperma was not dependent, using summer precipitation only when amounts were above some minimum threshold. Using sap flux and stable isotopic methods to assess seasonal water sources and water use efficiency, we examined the response of these two species to seasonal variations in moisture at a site located near the northern limits of the North American monsoon. Both sap flux and isotopic results indicated that P. edulis was responsive to summer rain, while J. osteosperma was not. Following summer rain events, sap flux density increased in P. edulis for several days, but not in J. osteosperma. Isotopic evidence indicated that P. edulis took up summer-derived moisture to a greater extent than J. osteosperma. Values of the natural abundance stable isotope ratio of carbon of leaf soluble carbohydrates increased over the summer for P. edulis, indicative of assimilation at higher water use efficiency, but were invariant for J. osteosperma. Our results supported the hypothesis that P. edulis and J. osteosperma are differentially sensitive to summer precipitation and are discussed in the light of potential changes in the seasonality of precipitation associated with climate change.


Summer precipitation Pinus edulis Juniperus osteosperma Transpiration Water uptake