, Volume 187, Issue 4, pp 879–895 | Cite as

A tale of ENSO, PDO, and increasing aridity impacts on drought-deciduous shrubs in the Death Valley region

  • James R. EhleringerEmail author
  • Darren R. Sandquist
Special Topic


Germination, establishment, phenology, and death among three drought-deciduous shrubs were influenced by ENSO/PDO and precipitation, based on 37 years of annual surveys. Encelia farinosa forms near monospecific stands on slopes, whereas E. frutescens and Ambrosia salsola dominate wash habitats. All shrubs exhibited phenological coherence. While germination, establishment, and mortality patterns were similar among wash species, these dynamics contrasted with E. farinosa on slopes. Germination was associated with El Niño years. Slope plant establishment was dependent on precipitation in the subsequent year, but not evidently so in wash species. Major mortality events were episodic, with Encelia mortality just as likely to occur in years with below or above average precipitation. In both Encelia species, mortality was associated with transitions to a cold PDO phase. In E. frutescens this response was more rapid, whereas in E. farinosa mortality lagged 1 year, resulting in contrasting slope-wash mortality patterns. 50% of newly established shrubs died within 5, 5, and 18 years for E. frutescens, E. farinosa, and A. salsola, respectively. The 90% mortality ages were 26 years for E. frutescens, 24 years for E. farinosa, and 51 years for A. salsola. While maximum life expectancies are unknown, estimated maximum life expectancies were 56, 66, and 86 years for E. frutescens, E. farinosa, and A. salsola, respectively. Overall, as the climate has become more arid over the past four decades, the populations in both slope and wash habitats have exhibited similar responses: reduced shrub abundances and reduced total supportable leaf areas.


Encelia Ambrosia Life expectancy Germination Mojave Desert Climate change 



Over the past 37 years, countless students, staff, postdocs, and colleagues have assisted with the annual population surveys. There are simply too many colleagues from California State University, Fullerton and the University of Utah to name individually, without the anxiety that we miss a name. We are grateful to all for their assistance and for the camaraderie working together without complaint as census tags were often hard to find and temperatures have been increasingly hot during the census period. We also thank these colleagues for opportunities to enjoy camping, music, jokes, and storytelling together around the campfire. We are most thankful to Edna and Meg for their continued support and for joining us on this lifetime adventure.

Author contribution statement

JRE designed the study; JRE, DRS, and colleagues collected the data; JRE analyzed the data; and JRE and DRS wrote the manuscript.


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

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Biological SciencesUniversity of UtahSalt Lake CityUSA
  2. 2.Department of Biological ScienceCalifornia State UniversityFullertonUSA

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