Understanding past, contemporary, and future dynamics of plants, populations, and communities using Sonoran desert winter annuals

Travis E. Huxman, Sarah Kimball, Amy L. Angert, Jennifer R. Gremer, Greg A. Barron-Gafford, D. Lawrence Venable

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

41 Scopus citations


Global change requires plant ecologists to predict future states of biological diversity to aid the management of natural communities, thus introducing a number of significant challenges. One major challenge is considering how the many interacting features of biological systems, including ecophysiological processes, plant life histories, and species interactions, relate to performance in the face of a changing environment. We have employed a functional trait approach to understand the individual, population, and community dynamics of a model system of Sonoran Desert winter annual plants. We have used a comprehensive approach that connects physiological ecology and comparative biology to population and community dynamics, while emphasizing both ecological and evolutionary processes. This approach has led to a fairly robust understanding of past and contemporary dynamics in response to changes in climate. In this community, there is striking variation in physiological and demographic responses to both precipitation and temperature that is described by a trade-off between water-use efficiency (WUE) and relative growth rate (RGR). This community-wide trade-off predicts both the demographic and life history variation that contribute to species coexistence. Our framework has provided a mechanistic explanation to the recent warming, drying, and climate variability that has driven a surprising shift in these communities: cold-adapted species with more buffered population dynamics have increased in relative abundance. These types of comprehensive approaches that acknowledge the hierarchical nature of biology may be especially useful in aiding prediction. The emerging, novel and nonstationary climate constrains our use of simplistic statistical representations of past plant behavior in predicting the future, without understanding the mechanistic basis of change.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1369-1380
Number of pages12
JournalAmerican journal of botany
Issue number7
StatePublished - Jul 2013


  • Desert annual plants
  • Functional traits
  • Global change
  • Growth rate
  • Photosynthesis
  • Species coexistence
  • Water-use efficiency

ASJC Scopus subject areas

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


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