, Volume 181, Issue 1, pp 65–76 | Cite as

Water relations and photosynthesis along an elevation gradient for Artemisia tridentata during an historic drought

  • Charlotte C. Reed
  • Michael E. Loik
Physiological ecology – original research


Quantifying the variation in plant–water relations and photosynthesis over environmental gradients and during unique events can provide a better understanding of vegetation patterns in a future climate. We evaluated the hypotheses that photosynthesis and plant water potential would correspond to gradients in precipitation and soil moisture during a lengthy drought, and that experimental water additions would increase photosynthesis for the widespread evergreen shrub Artemisia tridentata ssp. vaseyana. We quantified abiotic conditions and physiological characteristics for control and watered plants at 2135, 2315, and 2835 m near Mammoth Lakes, CA, USA, at the ecotone of the Sierra Nevada and Great Basin ecoregions. Snowfall, total precipitation, and soil moisture increased with elevation, but air temperature and soil N content did not. Plant water potential (Ψ), stomatal conductance (g s), maximum photosynthetic rate (A max), carboxylation rate (V cmax), and electron transport rate (J max) all significantly increased with elevations. Addition of water increased Ψ, g s, J max, and A max only at the lowest elevation; g s contributed about 30 % of the constraints on photosynthesis at the lowest elevation and 23 % at the other two elevations. The physiology of this foundational shrub species was quite resilient to this 1-in-1200 year drought. However, plant water potential and photosynthesis corresponded to differences in soil moisture across the gradient. Soil re-wetting in early summer increased water potential and photosynthesis at the lowest elevation. Effects on water relations and photosynthesis of this widespread, cold desert shrub species may be disproportionate at lower elevations as drought length increases in a future climate.


Leaf gas exchange CO2 assimilation Photosynthetic limitations Vcmax Jmax Drought stress 



Rate of photosynthetic CO2 assimilation (µmol CO2 m−2 s−1)


Intercellular CO2 concentration (µmol mol−1 )


Photosynthetic photon flux (µmol photons m−2 s−1)


Conductance for H2O diffusion through the stomata (mol H2O m−2 s−1)


Light-saturated rate of CO2 assimilation (µmol CO2 m−2 s−1)


Maximum RuBP-saturated rate of carboxylation (µmol CO2 m−2 s−1)


Maximum rate of electron transport (µmol e m−2 s−1)


Dark respiration (µmol CO2 m−2 s−1)


Light compensation point irradiance level at which CO2 assimilation equals CO2 respiration (µmol photons m−2 s−1)


Maximum quantum yield moles of CO2 fixed per mole of quanta absorbed


Plant stem water potential (MPa)


Integrated water use efficiency (µmol mol−1)



Funding was provided by the Richard Cooley-Friends Foundation International Award to CCR. Thank you to the Valentine Eastern Sierra UC Reserve, Michael W. Jenkins, Catherine E. Wade, and Katherine M. Ross.

Author contribution statement

CCR and MEL designed the experiments; CCR conducted the experiments and analyzed the results; CCR and MEL wrote the paper.

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

The experiments described herein comply with the current laws of the United States of America. The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Supplementary material

442_2015_3528_MOESM1_ESM.docx (13 kb)
Supplementary material 1 (DOCX 13 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Environmental StudiesUniversity of CaliforniaSanta CruzUSA

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