, Volume 169, Issue 2, pp 319–329

Fitness and physiology in a variable environment

  • Sarah Kimball
  • Jennifer R. Gremer
  • Amy L. Angert
  • Travis E. Huxman
  • D. Lawrence Venable
Physiological ecology - Original research


The relationship between physiological traits and fitness often depends on environmental conditions. In variable environments, different species may be favored through time, which can influence both the nature of trait evolution and the ecological dynamics underlying community composition. To determine how fluctuating environmental conditions favor species with different physiological traits over time, we combined long-term data on survival and fecundity of species in a desert annual plant community with data on weather and physiological traits. For each year, we regressed the standardized annual fitness of each species on its position along a tradeoff between relative growth rate and water-use efficiency. Next, we determined how variations in the slopes and intercepts of these fitness–physiology functions related to year-to-year variations in temperature and precipitation. Years with a relatively high percentage of small rain events and a greater number of days between precipitation pulse events tended to be worse, on average, for all desert annual species. Species with high relative growth rates and low water-use efficiency had greater standardized annual fitness than other species in years with greater numbers of large rain events. Conversely, species with high water-use efficiency had greater standardized annual fitness in years with small rain events and warm temperatures late in the growing season. These results reveal how weather variables interact with physiological traits of co-occurring species to determine interannual variations in survival and fecundity, which has important implications for understanding population and community dynamics.


Relative growth rate Water-use efficiency Desert annual plants Precipitation Temperature Climate 

Supplementary material

442_2011_2199_MOESM1_ESM.doc (118 kb)
Supplementary material 1 (DOC 118 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  • Sarah Kimball
    • 1
  • Jennifer R. Gremer
    • 2
  • Amy L. Angert
    • 3
  • Travis E. Huxman
    • 2
    • 4
  • D. Lawrence Venable
    • 2
  1. 1.Center for Environmental BiologyUniversity of California, IrvineIrvineUSA
  2. 2.Department of Ecology and Evolutionary BiologyUniversity of ArizonaTucsonUSA
  3. 3.Department of BiologyColorado State UniversityFort CollinsUSA
  4. 4.Biosphere 2University of ArizonaTucsonUSA

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