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Effects of a multi-year drought on a drought-adapted shrub, Artemisia tridentata


Models of climate change predict more variable precipitation for much of western North America, including more severe multi-year droughts. Droughts are known to increase mortality to trees although less is known about effects on shrubs from arid environments and about effects on reproduction. In this study, we followed a cohort of young sagebrush plants from 2010 to 2016, a period that included a severe drought from 2012 to 2015. Plants experienced little mortality preceding and during the drought. However, in the year following the drought, 14% of individuals died and 33% of branches on living plants died. There was little flowering in the years preceding the drought and flowering increased in each successive year from 2014 to 2016. Plants that produced more flowers in 2015 had more dead branches in 2016. Larger plants had fewer branches that died. Contrary to expectations, afternoon shade was not associated with greater survival or flowering, perhaps because shaded plants were in proximity to large trees which likely competed for water. Plants of the two common chemotypes had similar rates of survival and flowering. Experimental watering during the summer of 2015 did not affect survival and may have increased flowering in 2016. If multi-year droughts become more common in the future, even drought-adapted shrubs may be expected to suffer high rates of mortality.

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