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Coping with herbivory: Photosynthetic capacity and resource allocation in two semiarid Agropyron bunchgrasses

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Summary

Agropyron desertorum, a grazing-tolerant bunchgrass introduced to the western U.S. from Eurasia, and Agropyron spicatum, a grazing-sensitive bunchgrass native to North America, were examined in the field for photosynthetic capacity, growth, resource allocation, and tiller dynamics. These observations allowed identification of physiological characteristics that may contribute to grazing tolerance in semiarid environments. A uniform matrix of sagebrush, Artemisia tridentata, provided an ecologically relevant competitive environment for both bunch-grass species. Physiological activity, growth, and allocation were also followed during recovery from a severe defoliation treatment and were correlated with tiller dynamics.

Potential photosynthetic carbon uptake of both species was dominated by stems and leaf sheaths during June, when maximum uptake rates occurred. For both species, water use efficiency of stems and sheaths was similar to that of leaf blades, but nitrogen investment per photosynthetic surface area was less than in blades. In addition, soluble carbohydrates in stems and sheaths of both species constituted the major labile carbon pools in control plants. Contrary to current theory, these findings suggest that culms from which leaf blades have been removed should be of considerable value to defoliated bunchgrasses, and in the case of partial defoliation could provide important supplies of organic nutrients for regrowth. These interpretations, based on total pool sizes, differ markedly from previous interpretations based on carbohydrate concentrations alone, which suggested that crowns contain large carbohydrate reserves. In this study, crowns of both species contained a minor component of the total plant carbohydrate pool.

Following defoliation, A. desertorum plants rapidly reestablished a canopy with 3 to 5 times the photosynthetic surface of A. spicatum plants. This difference was primarily due to the greater number of quickly growing new tillers produced following defoliation. Agropyron spicatum produced few new tillers following defoliation despite adequate moisture, and carbohydrate pools that were equivalent to those in A. desertorum.

Leaf blades of regrowing tillers had higher photosynthetic capacity than blades on unclipped plants of both species, but the relative increase, considered on a unit mass, area, or nitrogen basis, was greater for A. desertorum than for A. spicatum. Agropyron desertorum also had lower investment of nitrogen and biomass per unit area of photosynthetic tissues, more tillers and leaves per bunch, and shorter lived stems, all of which can contribute to greater tolerance of partial defoliation.

Greater flexibility of resource allocation following defoliation was demonstrated by A. desertorum for both nitrogen and carbohydrates. Relatively more allocation to the shoot system and curtailed root growth in A. desertorum resulted in more rapid approach to the preclipping balance between the root and shoot systems, whereas root growth in A. spicatum continued unabated following defoliation. Nitrogen required for regrowth in both species was apparently supplied by uptake rather than reserve depletion. Carbohydrate pools in the shoot system of both species remained very low following severe defoliation and were approximately equivalent to carbon fixed in one day by photosynthesis of the whole canopy.

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Dedicated to Drs. Michael Evenari and Konrad Springer

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Caldwell, M.M., Richards, J.H., Johnson, D.A. et al. Coping with herbivory: Photosynthetic capacity and resource allocation in two semiarid Agropyron bunchgrasses. Oecologia 50, 14–24 (1981). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00378790

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