Extreme drought alters growth and interactions with exotic grasses, but not survival, for a California annual forb

Research paper by Diane M. Thomson, Jonas W. Kwok; Emily L. Schultz

Indexed on: 02 May '18Published on: 16 Apr '18Published in: Plant Ecology


Climate change will not only alter mean conditions, but increase the frequency and intensity of extreme events such as severe droughts. Yet the consequences of extreme drought for plant demography are poorly understood. We compared phenology, demographic rates and effects of competition with exotic grasses for the California annual forb Phacelia distans between a year with slightly below average precipitation (2011–2012) and one in extreme drought (2012–2013). We also contrasted these demographic responses with changes in seedling emergence rates and cover in the annual plant community. Early Phacelia mortality actually fell in the extreme drought year, as low October rainfall shifted germination to cooler conditions in November. Survival from mid December to flowering did not change between years. In contrast to expectations, competition with early-emerging exotic annual grasses did not reduce Phacelia spring survival in 2012–2013. A shorter window for fall germination that reduced priority effects may explain this result. Yet the 2012–2013 growing season ended a month earlier than in 2011–2012, significantly reducing Phacelia size at flowering and inflorescence production. Community seedling emergence and cover changed only weakly between the 2 years. Our results demonstrate the importance of within season precipitation patterns in determining whether a climatically extreme year will lead to extreme ecological outcomes. This work also illustrates how annual plant drought responses depend critically on germination behavior and phenology. An important future question is whether seed banks can sustain native forb population persistence through an extended drought with multiple years of low or failed reproduction.