Drought-induced mortality of a foundation species (Juniperus monosperma) promotes positive afterlife effects in understory vegetation

J. M. Kane, K. A. Meinhardt, T. Chang, B. L. Cardall, R. Michalet, T. G. Whitham

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

57 Scopus citations


Climate change-induced droughts have contributed to large-scale die-offs of dominant tree species throughout much of the southwestern United States. These mortality events provide ecologists with the opportunity to determine whether afterlife effects associated with the die-off occur and the potential implications for future ecosystem changes. We studied both the afterlife and interaction effects of condition (dead trees, living trees, and open areas) on understory vegetation in a Juniperus monosperma woodland of northern Arizona 7 years after a major mortality event. Five major findings resulted: (1) there was a positive afterlife effect on understory plants, in which vegetation under dead junipers contained almost double the amount of cover; (2) the competitive effect on understory plants was exemplified by a 1.3 times greater cover and 1.6 additional species in open areas compared to under living junipers; (3) plant community composition significantly differed by aspect and condition; (4) the highly invasive cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum) was 1.5 times greater under dead junipers compared to live junipers; and (5) litter depth and light availability were negatively and positively correlated with plant cover, respectively, but weakly correlated with afterlife effects. Our results indicate that mortality events can promote changes in understory vegetation through afterlife effects. In ecosystems where foundation species suffer high rates of mortality, changes in plant population dynamics and ecosystem function may promote an altered trajectory in community composition with the potential to increase the presence of invasive species. Continued species die-offs associated with climate change-induced drought may contribute to an increased occurrence and legacy of afterlife effects.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)733-741
Number of pages9
JournalPlant Ecology
Issue number5
StatePublished - May 2011


  • Afterlife effects
  • Competition
  • Foundation species
  • Juniperus monosperma
  • Relative interaction index
  • Species richness
  • Understory vegetation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology
  • Plant Science


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