Fitness and physiology in a variable environment

Sarah Kimball, Jennifer R. Gremer, Amy L. Angert, Travis E. Huxman, D. Lawrence Venable

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

68 Scopus citations


The relationship between physiological traits and fitness often depends on environmental conditions. In variable environments, different species may be favored through time, which can influence both the nature of trait evolution and the ecological dynamics underlying community composition. To determine how fluctuating environmental conditions favor species with different physiological traits over time, we combined long-term data on survival and fecundity of species in a desert annual plant community with data on weather and physiological traits. For each year, we regressed the standardized annual fitness of each species on its position along a tradeoff between relative growth rate and water-use efficiency. Next, we determined how variations in the slopes and intercepts of these fitness-physiology functions related to year-to-year variations in temperature and precipitation. Years with a relatively high percentage of small rain events and a greater number of days between precipitation pulse events tended to be worse, on average, for all desert annual species. Species with high relative growth rates and low water-use efficiency had greater standardized annual fitness than other species in years with greater numbers of large rain events. Conversely, species with high water-use efficiency had greater standardized annual fitness in years with small rain events and warm temperatures late in the growing season. These results reveal how weather variables interact with physiological traits of co-occurring species to determine interannual variations in survival and fecundity, which has important implications for understanding population and community dynamics.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)319-329
Number of pages11
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jun 2012


  • Climate
  • Desert annual plants
  • Precipitation
  • Relative growth rate
  • Temperature
  • Water-use efficiency

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


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