Differential use of spatially heterogeneous soil moisture by two semiarid woody species: Pinus edulis and Juniperus monosperma

David D. Breshears, Orrin B. Myers, Susan R. Johnson, Clifton W. Meyer, Scott N. Martens

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101 Scopus citations


1. Soil moisture in semiarid woodlands varies both vertically with depth and horizontally between canopy patches beneath woody plants and the intercanopy patches that separate them, such that shallow soil layers in intercanopy locations are wettest, yet few studies have considered both dimensions of spatial variability in testing for acquisition of resources by plants. 2. Three hypotheses were tested relative to the rise of shallow water in intercanopy locations by two coexisting semiarid-woodland tree species, Pinus edulis (a pinon) and Juniperus monosperma (a juniper): (i) both P. edulis and J. monosperma can use shallow water from intercanopy locations; (ii) J. monosperma is able to obtain more shallow water from intercanopy locations than P. edulis, and (iii) the spatial arrangement of the trees influences the amount of water they obtain. Soil moisture and plant water potential (i.e. plant water stress) were measured before and after the addition of water to shallow depths (0.30 cm) of intercanopy locations for trees of both species in two spatial arrangements: isolated and paired with a contiguous tree of the other species. 3. Both species responded to the addition of shallow water in intercanopy locations, as measured by plant water potential. The response of J. monosperma was significantly greater than that of P. edulis, as measured by depletion of shallow soil moisture in intercanopy locations and by change in plant water potential per unit change in soil water potential (the difference was not detectable on the basis of plant water potential alone): in addition, the amount of depletion was correlated with basal area of J. monosperma but not of P. edulis. The responses were not influenced by spatial arrangement (isolated vs. paired with a contiguous tree of the other species). 4. The results of this study are consistent with differences in the relative abundances of the two species across locations, suggesting that species differences in ability to use shallow water in intercanopy locations is important in structuring semiarid woodlands. Further, the results suggest that current theoretical concepts for semiarid ecosystems, which ignore either vertical or horizontal variability in soil moisture, may be inadequate for predicting changes in the ratio of woody to herbaceous plant biomass, particularly for plant communities with co-dominant woody species that differ in ability to acquire spatially heterogeneous resources.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)289-299
Number of pages11
JournalJournal of Ecology
Issue number3
StatePublished - 1997


  • Competition
  • Juniper
  • Pinon
  • Plant water potential
  • Woodland

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Ecology
  • Plant Science


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