Growth and demography of a declining, endangered cactus in the Sonoran Desert

Margrit E. McIntosh, Amy E. Boyd, A. Elizabeth Arnold, Robert J. Steidl, Lucinda A. McDade

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations


Increases in the incidence and severity of drought threaten the viability of rare plants in arid regions. The endangered Nichol's Turk's head cactus (Echinocactus horizonthalonius Lemaire var. nicholii L. Benson) occurs only in four small, isolated populations in the Sonoran Desert of North America. Since 1995 we have monitored a population in southeastern Arizona (USA). Here we report 23 years of observations on abundance, growth, mortality, flowering and recruitment. Abundance of plants decreased from 132 in 1996 to 40 in 2017, with 100 individuals recruited and 203 dying during the study. Individual plants grew slowly, increasing annually by an average of 0.22 cm (95% confidence interval, 0.18–0.26 cm) in diameter and 0.27 cm (0.20–0.33 cm) in height. Growth was slowest when drought was most severe and slowed as plants reached maximum size. Annual mortality increased markedly across the study period and did not vary with plant size. Annual probability of flowering increased as plants increased in diameter but not in height, and varied with precipitation and drought but not with mean annual temperature. Recruitment was higher when average temperature was higher and the number of recruits per capita increased across the study period. The annual rate of change in abundance averaged −6%, but shifted markedly from −1% during 1995–2008 to −11% during 2008–2017. Our results indicate that the population's decline was not a consequence of failed recruitment but of increased mortality, which we discuss in the context of climate and herbivory.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)6-15
Number of pages10
JournalPlant Species Biology
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 1 2020


  • Cactaceae
  • Endangered Species Act
  • climate
  • demography
  • herbivory

ASJC Scopus subject areas

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


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