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Water relations and photosynthesis along an elevation gradient for Artemisia tridentata during an historic drought


Quantifying the variation in plant-water relations and photosynthesis over environmental gradients and during unique events can provide a better understanding of vegetation patterns in a future climate. We evaluated the hypotheses that photosynthesis and plant water potential would correspond to gradients in precipitation and soil moisture during a lengthy drought, and that experimental water additions would increase photosynthesis for the widespread evergreen shrub Artemisia tridentata ssp. vaseyana. We quantified abiotic conditions and physiological characteristics for control and watered plants at 2135, 2315, and 2835 m near Mammoth Lakes, CA, USA, at the ecotone of the Sierra Nevada and Great Basin ecoregions. Snowfall, total precipitation, and soil moisture increased with elevation, but air temperature and soil N content did not. Plant water potential (Ψ), stomatal conductance (g s), maximum photosynthetic rate (A max), carboxylation rate (V cmax), and electron transport rate (J max) all significantly increased with elevations. Addition of water increased Ψ, g s, J max, and A max only at the lowest elevation; g s contributed about 30 % of the constraints on photosynthesis at the lowest elevation and 23 % at the other two elevations. The physiology of this foundational shrub species was quite resilient to this 1-in-1200 year drought. However, plant water potential and photosynthesis corresponded to differences in soil moisture across the gradient. Soil re-wetting in early summer increased water potential and photosynthesis at the lowest elevation. Effects on water relations and photosynthesis of this widespread, cold desert shrub species may be disproportionate at lower elevations as drought length increases in a future climate.

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