Precipitation magnitude and timing differentially affect species richness and plant density in the sotol grassland of the Chihuahuan Desert

Traesha R Robertson, John C Zak, David T Tissue
Oecologia 2010, 162 (1): 185-97
Arid and semi-arid environments are dynamic ecosystems with highly variable precipitation, resulting in diverse plant communities. Changes in the timing and magnitude of precipitation due to global climate change may further alter plant community composition in desert regions. In this study, we assessed changes in species richness and plant density at the community, functional group, and species level in response to variation in the magnitude of natural seasonal precipitation and 25% increases in seasonal precipitation [e.g., supplemental watering in summer, winter, or summer and winter (SW)] over a 5-year period in a sotol grassland in the Chihuahuan Desert. Community species richness was higher with increasing winter precipitation while community plant density increased with greater amounts of winter and summer precipitation, suggesting winter precipitation was important for species recruitment and summer precipitation promoted growth of existing species. Herb and grass density increased with increasing winter and summer precipitation, but only grass density showed a significant response to supplemental watering treatments (SW treatment plots had higher grass density). Shrubs and succulents did not exhibit changes in richness or density in response to natural or supplemental precipitation. In this 5-year study, changes in community species richness and density were driven by responses of herb and grass species that favored more frequent small precipitation events, shorter inter-pulse duration, and higher soil moisture. However, due to the long life spans of the shrub and succulent species within this community, 5 years may be insufficient to accurately evaluate their response to variable timing and magnitude of precipitation in this mid-elevation grassland.

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