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Interannual variations in needle and sapwood traits of Pinus edulis branches under an experimental drought

05 Jan 2018


In the southwestern USA, recent large-scale die-offs of conifers raise the question of their resilience and mortality under droughts. To date, little is known about the interannual structural response to droughts. We hypothesized that piñon pines (Pinus edulis) respond to drought by reducing the drop of leaf water potential in branches from year to year through needle morphological adjustments. We tested our hypothesis using a 7-year experiment in central New Mexico with three watering treatments (irrigated, normal, and rain exclusion). We analyzed how variation in “evaporative structure” (needle length, stomatal diameter, stomatal density, stomatal conductance) responded to watering treatment and interannual climate variability. We further analyzed annual functional adjustments by comparing yearly addition of needle area (LA) with yearly addition of sapwood area (SA) and distance to tip (d), defining the yearly ratios SA:LA and SA:LA/d. Needle length (l) increased with increasing winter and monsoon water supply, and showed more interannual variability when the soil was drier. Stomatal density increased with dryness, while stomatal diameter was reduced. As a result, anatomical maximal stomatal conductance was relatively invariant across treatments. SA:LA and SA:LA/d showed significant differences across treatments and contrary to our expectation were lower with reduced water input. Within average precipitation ranges, the response of these ratios to soil moisture was similar across treatments. However, when extreme soil drought was combined with high VPD, needle length, SA:LA and SA:LA/d became highly nonlinear, emphasizing the existence of a response threshold of combined high VPD and dry soil conditions. In new branch tissues, the response of annual functional ratios to water stress was immediate (same year) and does not attempt to reduce the drop of water potential. We suggest that unfavorable evaporative structural response to drought is compensated by dynamic stomatal control to maximize photosynthesis rates.

The leaf and sapwood structures determine the design of the hydraulic system of a tree and affect the water exchanges between the plant and the atmosphere. We investigated the effect of drought on the yearly addition of sapwood area, leaf area, and elongation in branches, as well as their interannual variability. Using two functional ratios, we showed that during drought, new tissues added in branches do not support a reduction in the leaf water potential.

Click here to view the full article which appeared in Ecology and Evolution

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