pp 1–11 | Cite as

Drought timing, not previous drought exposure, determines sensitivity of two shortgrass species to water stress

  • Nathan P. Lemoine
  • Robert J. Griffin-Nolan
  • Abigail D. Lock
  • Alan K. Knapp
Physiological ecology - original research


Climate change will alter global precipitation patterns, making it increasingly important that we understand how ecosystems will be impacted by more frequent and severe droughts. Yet most drought studies examine a single, within-season drought, and we know relatively little about the impacts of multiple droughts that occur within a single growing season. This distinction is important because many plant species are able to acclimate physiologically, such that the effects of multiple droughts on ecosystem function deviate significantly from the effects of cumulative, independent droughts. Unfortunately, we know relatively little about the ability of dominant species to acclimate to drought in drought-sensitive ecosystems like semi-arid grasslands. Here, we tested for physiological acclimation to multiple drought events in two dominant shortgrass steppe species: Bouteloua gracilis (C4) and Elymus elymoides (C3). Neither species exhibited physiological acclimation to drought; leaf water potential, stomatal conductance, and photosynthesis rates were all similarly affected by a single, late period drought and a second, late period drought. Biomass was lowest in plants exposed to two droughts, but this is likely due to the cumulative effects of both an early and late period drought. Our results suggest that late period droughts do exert weaker effects on biomass production of two dominant shortgrass species, but that the weaker effects are due to ontogenetic changes in plant physiology as opposed to physiological acclimation against multiple droughts. As a consequence, current ecosystem models that incorporate grass phenology and seasonal physiology should provide accurate predictions of primary production under future climates.


Leaf water potential Photosynthesis Stomatal conductance Soil moisture Plant phenology 



We thank Tammy Brenner for her help in growth chamber maintenance and calibration. This work was supported by a USDA NIFA-AFRI postdoctoral fellowship to NPL (2016-67012-25169), and NSF DEB grant to NPL (DEB-1754124), and an NSF Macrosystems Biology Grant to AKK (EF-1239559, EF-1137378).

Author contribution statement

NPL and AKK designed the experiment, ADL, RJGN, and NPL carried out the experiment, NPL analyzed the data and wrote the manuscript with input from RJGN and AKK.

Supplementary material

442_2018_4265_MOESM1_ESM.doc (70 kb)
Supplementary material 1 (DOC 70 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of BiologyColorado State UniversityFort CollinsUSA
  2. 2.Graduate Degree Program in EcologyColorado State UniversityFort CollinsUSA

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