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Hydraulic responses to extreme drought conditions in three co-dominant tree species in shallow soil over bedrock

  • Physiological ecology - Original research
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Abstract

An important component of the hydrological niche involves the partitioning of water sources, but in landscapes characterized by shallow soils over fractured bedrock, root growth is highly constrained. We conducted a study to determine how physical constraints in the root zone affected the water use of three tree species that commonly coexist on the Edwards Plateau of central Texas; cedar elm (Ulmus crassifolia), live oak (Quercus fusiformis), and Ashe juniper (Juniperus ashei). The year of the study was unusually dry; minimum predawn water potentials measured in August were −8 MPa in juniper, less than −8 MPa in elm, and −5 MPa in oak. All year long, species used nearly identical water sources, based on stable isotope analysis of stem water. Sap flow velocities began to decline simultaneously in May, but the rate of decline was fastest for oak and slowest for juniper. Thus, species partitioned water by time when they could not partition water by source. Juniper lost 15–30 % of its stem hydraulic conductivity, while percent loss for oak was 70–75 %, and 90 % for elm. There was no tree mortality in the year of the study, but 2 years later, after an even more severe drought in 2011, we recorded 34, 14, 6, and 1 % mortality among oak, elm, juniper, and Texas persimmon (Diospyros texana), respectively. Among the study species, mortality rates ranked in the same order as the rate of sap flow decline in 2009. Among the angiosperms, mortality rates correlated with wood density, lending further support to the hypothesis that species with more cavitation-resistant xylem are more susceptible to catastrophic hydraulic failure under acute drought.

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Acknowledgments

We thank Georgianne Moore for technical advice on sap flow sensor construction, implementation, and analysis. We thank Heather Cardella Dammeyer for field assistance and Jim and Shannon Brotherton for allowing access to their land. Funding was provided by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, Norman Hackerman—Advanced Research Program Grant (Project # 003615-0021-2007) and the Howard McCarley Student Research Award of the Southwestern Association of Naturalists.

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Correspondence to Susanne Schwinning.

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Communicated by Hermann Heilmeier.

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Kukowski, K.R., Schwinning, S. & Schwartz, B.F. Hydraulic responses to extreme drought conditions in three co-dominant tree species in shallow soil over bedrock. Oecologia 171, 819–830 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00442-012-2466-x

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