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Drought in Southern California coastal sage scrub reduces herbaceous biomass of exotic species more than native species, but exotic growth recovers quickly when drought ends


Semi-arid regions with Mediterranean-type climates harbor exceptional biodiversity, but are increasingly threatened by invading exotic annual species and climatic changes, including drought. In semi-arid ecosystems, antecedent conditions often influence plant growth, but the role of antecedent conditions for drought response and recovery of native versus exotic species remains largely unexplored. From 2013 to 2016, we imposed experimental rainfall treatments (average rainfall, moderate or severe drought) in plots under a native shrub canopy and in inter-spaces dominated by herbaceous vegetation, and quantified growth (peak biomass) and abundance (cover) of native and exotic herbaceous species. The following year, we quantified recovery from the drought treatments (2017). Exotic biomass was less resistant to drought (declined more than native biomass), but was more resilient (increased more than native biomass in the year following drought), especially in unshaded inter-spaces between shrubs. These responses were associated with life history; annual species responded more negatively to drought in the inter-spaces than perennial species. Current years' rainfall was a better predictor of biomass than prior rainfall, but antecedent factors were also important. After four years of rainfall treatments, exotic species had the highest growth recovery in the severe drought treatment, while growth of natives had the opposite response. In contrast, litter was positively associated with plant growth regardless of origin. This study demonstrates that when native and exotic species differ in life history, as they do in Mediterranean climate ecosystems, they may respond differently to antecedent factors, and hence differ in recovery from climate extremes such as drought.

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This work was supported by National Science Foundation (NSF) Division of Environmental Biology Grants to E.E.C. (DEB-1154082) and to D.L. (DEB-1153958), and NSF Graduate Research Fellowships to E.H.E (DGE-1144086) and C.E.P. (DGE-16540112). A California Native Plant Society Grant to E.H.E. also helped support this research. We thank Rachel Abbott, Andrew Heath, Christopher Kopp, and Elizabeth Premo for help in maintaining the field experiment. This work was performed at the San Diego State University’s Santa Margarita Ecological Reserve and we thank Pablo Bryant for site access and maintenance.

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Correspondence to Elsa E. Cleland.

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Communicated by Lori Biederman.

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Puritty, C.E., Esch, E.H., Castro, S.P. et al. Drought in Southern California coastal sage scrub reduces herbaceous biomass of exotic species more than native species, but exotic growth recovers quickly when drought ends. Plant Ecol 220, 151–169 (2019).

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  • Antecedent conditions
  • Ecological resilience
  • Invasion
  • Litter
  • Seedbank