Long-term studies reveal differential responses to climate change for trees under soil- Or herbivore-related stress

Amy V. Whipple, Neil S. Cobb, Catherine A. Gehring, Susan Mopper, Lluvia Flores-Rentería, Thomas G. Whitham

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

10 Scopus citations


Worldwide, trees are confronting increased temperature and aridity, exacerbating susceptibility to herbivory. Long-term studies comparing patterns of plant performance through drought can help identify variation among and within populations in vulnerability to climate change and herbivory. We use long-term monitoring data to examine our overarching hypothesis that the negative impacts of poor soil and herbivore susceptibility would be compounded by severe drought. We studied pinyon pine, Pinus edulis, a widespread southwestern tree species that has suffered extensive climate-change related mortality. We analyzed data on mortality, growth, male reproduction, and herbivory collected for 14–32 years in three areas with distinct soil-types. We used standardized precipitation-evapotranspiration index (SPEI) as a climate proxy that summarizes the impacts of drought due to precipitation and temperature variation on semi-arid forests. Several key findings emerged: (1) Plant performance measurements did not support our hypothesis that trees growing in stressful, coarse-textured soils would suffer more than trees growing in finer-textured soils. Stem growth at the area with coarse, young cinder soils (area one) responded only weakly to drought, while stem growth on more developed soils with sedimentary (area two) and volcanic (area three) substrates, was strongly negatively affected by drought. Male reproduction declined less with drought at area one and more at areas two and three. Overall mortality was 30% on coarse cinder soils (area one) and averaged 55% on finer soil types (areas two and three). (2) Although moth herbivore susceptible trees were hypothesized to suffer more with drought than moth resistant trees, the opposite occurred. Annual stem growth was negatively affected by drought for moth resistant trees, but much less strongly for moth susceptible trees. (3) In contrast to our hypothesis, moths declined with drought. Overall, chronically water-stressed and herbivore-susceptible trees had smaller declines in performance relative to less-stressed trees during drought years. These long-term findings support the idea that stressed trees might be more resistant to drought since they may have adapted or acclimated to resist drought-related mortality.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number132
JournalFrontiers in Plant Science
StatePublished - Mar 7 2019


  • Climate change
  • Drought
  • Growth
  • Herbivory
  • Long-term
  • Reproduction
  • Tree

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Plant Science


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