Mortality gradients within and among dominant plant populations as barometers of ecosystem change during extreme drought

Alicyn R. Gitlin, Christopher M. Sthultz, Matthew A. Bowker, Stacy Stumpf, Kristina L. Paxton, Karla Kennedy, Axhel Muñoz, Joseph K. Bailey, Thomas G. Whitham

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

222 Scopus citations


Understanding patterns of plant population mortality during extreme weather events is important to conservation planners because the frequency of such events is expected to increase, creating the need to integrate climatic uncertainty into management. Dominant plants provide habitat and ecosystem structure, so changes in their distribution can be expected to have cascading effects on entire communities. Observing areas that respond quickly to climate fluctuations provides foresight into future ecological changes and will help prioritize conservation efforts. We investigated patterns of mortality in six dominant plant species during a drought in the southwestern United States. We quantified population mortality for each species across its regional distribution and tested hypotheses to identify ecological stress gradients for each species. Our results revealed three major patterns: (1) dominant species from diverse habitat types (i.e., riparian, chaparral, and low- to high-elevation forests) exhibited significant mortality, indicating that the effects of drought were widespread; (2) average mortality differed among dominant species (one-seed juniper [Juniperus monosperma (Engelm.) Sarg.] 3.3%; manzanita [Arctostaphylos pungens Kunth], 14.6%; quaking aspen [Populus tremuloides Michx.], 15.4%; ponderosa pine [Pinus ponderosa P. & C. Lawson], 15.9%; Fremont cottonwood [Populus fremontii S. Wats.], 20.7%; and pinyon pine [Pinus edulis Engelm.], 41.4%); (3) all dominant species showed localized patterns of very high mortality (24-100%) consistent with water stress gradients. Land managers should plan for climatic uncertainty by promoting tree recruitment in rare habitat types, alleviating unnatural levels of competition on dominant plants, and conserving sites across water stress gradients. High-stress sites, such as those we examined, have conservation value as barometers of change and because they may harbor genotypes that are adapted to climatic extremes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1477-1486
Number of pages10
JournalConservation Biology
Issue number5
StatePublished - Oct 2006


  • Climate change
  • Fragmentation
  • Fremont cottonwood
  • Manzanita
  • One-seed juniper
  • Pinyon pine
  • Ponderosa pine
  • Quaking aspen
  • Rare habitat
  • Water stress

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Ecology
  • Nature and Landscape Conservation


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