Plant dieback under exceptional drought driven by elevation, not by plant traits, in Big Bend National Park, Texas, USA

PeerJ. 2014 Jul 15;2:e477. doi: 10.7717/peerj.477. eCollection 2014.

Abstract

In 2011, Big Bend National Park, Texas, USA, experienced the most severe single year drought in its recorded history, resulting in significant plant mortality. We used this event to test how perennial plant response to drought varied across elevation, plant growth form and leaf traits. In October 2010 and October 2011, we measured plant cover by species at six evenly-spaced elevations ranging from Chihuahuan desert (666 m) to oak forest in the Chisos mountains (1,920 m). We asked the following questions: what was the relationship between elevation and stem dieback and did susceptibility to drought differ among functional groups or by leaf traits? In 2010, pre-drought, we measured leaf mass per area (LMA) on each species. In 2011, the percent of canopy dieback for each individual was visually estimated. Living canopy cover decreased significantly after the drought of 2011 and dieback decreased with elevation. There was no relationship between LMA and dieback within elevations. The negative relationship between proportional dieback and elevation was consistent in shrub and succulent species, which were the most common growth forms across elevations, indicating that dieback was largely driven by elevation and not by species traits. Growth form turnover did not influence canopy dieback; differences in canopy cover and proportional dieback among elevations were driven primarily by differences in drought severity. These results indicate that the 2011 drought in Big Bend National Park had a large effect on communities at all elevations with average dieback for all woody plants ranging from 8% dieback at the highest elevation to 83% dieback at lowest elevations.

Keywords: Big Bend National Park; Canopy cover; Canopy dieback; Drought; Elevational gradient; Leaf traits.

Grant support

This work was funded by general teaching funds provided to the Ecological Strategies of Plants course by the Department of Biological Sciences at Texas Tech University. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.