Comparative patterns of phenology and growth form diversity in two winter rainfall deserts: The Succulent Karoo and Mojave Desert ecosystems

Esler K.J. ; Rundel P.W. (1999)


A comparative study of community structure and seasonal growth dynamics in the arid winter rainfall regions of the Succulent Karoo in South Africa and the Mojave Desert of the United States suggests that remarkably divergent patterns of resource use and resultant growth form diversity exist in regions with outwardly similar climatic regimes. An understanding of these divergent patterns in the two winter rainfall deserts allows predictions to be made on vegetation response to global change. Above-ground plant growth in the Succulent Karoo begins with the first significant rains in late summer and continues through winter because moderate minimum temperatures allow continued growth. These communities have low structural diversity above-ground, but also below-ground, where root systems commonly do not exceed 20 cm in depth. These shallow root systems harvest water from upper soil horizons soon after rain falls, and growth declines as rainfall decreases in late spring. In contrast, low temperatures during winter inhibit growth in the Mojave Desert until early spring at a time when a mean 74% of the hydrologic year precipitation (July-June) has already occurred. Thus species in this structurally diverse system rely on deeper stores of water for growth in spring and early summer. A global change scenario of a 2 to 4 °C increase in mean annual temperature and increased summer rainfall in the Mojave desert would be expected to produce similar conditions in the Mojave Desert to those that exist in the Succulent Karoo today. Assuming no genetic constraints on phenotypic plasticity, this would suggest increased species diversity and a decline in structural diversity in the Mojave Desert over evolutionary time. Increased summer rainfall in the Succulent Karoo would be expected to lead to invasions of grasses and thus increased competitive pressure reducing community diversity.

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