skip to main content

Title: Constraints on shrub cover and shrub–shrub competition in a U.S. southwest desert

The cover of woody perennial plants (trees and shrubs) in arid ecosystems is at least partially constrained by water availability. However, the extent to which maximum canopy cover is limited by rainfall and the degree to which soil water holding capacity and topography impacts maximum shrub cover are not well understood. Similar to other deserts in the U.S. southwest, plant communities at the Jornada Basin Long‐Term Ecological Research site in the northern Chihuahuan Desert have experienced a long‐term state change from perennial grassland to shrubland dominated by woody plants. To better understand this transformation, and the environmental controls and constraints on shrub cover, we created a shrub cover map using high spatial resolution images and explored how maximum shrub cover varies with landform, water availability, and soil characteristics. Our results indicate that when clay content is below ~18%, the upper limit of shrub cover is positively correlated with plant available water as mediated by surface soil clay influence on water retention. At surface soil clay contents >18%, maximum shrub cover decreases, presumably because the amount of water percolating to depths preferentially used by deep‐rooted shrubs is diminished. In addition, the relationship between shrub cover and density suggests that self‐thinning occurs in denser stands in most landforms of the Jornada Basin, indicating that shrub–shrub competition interacts with soil properties to constrain maximum shrub cover in the northern Chihuahuan Desert.

more » « less
Award ID(s):
Author(s) / Creator(s):
 ;  ;  ;  ;  ;  ;  ;  ;  ;  ;  ;  
Publisher / Repository:
Wiley Blackwell (John Wiley & Sons)
Date Published:
Journal Name:
Medium: X
Sponsoring Org:
National Science Foundation
More Like this
  1. Abstract

    Many grass‐dominated ecosystems in dryland regions have experienced increasing woody plant density and abundance during the past century. In many cases, this process has led to land degradation and declines in ecosystem functions. An example is the Chihuahuan Desert in the southwestern United States, which experienced different stages of shrub encroachment in the past 150 years. Among a wide variety of mechanisms to explain the grass–shrub transitions in this dryland system, soil erosion (both wind and water) and fire are particularly well studied. Here, we synthesize recent developments on the drivers and feedback in the process of shrub encroachment in the Chihuahuan Desert through the intercomparison of two Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) sites, namely Jornada and Sevilleta. Experimental and modeling studies support a conceptual framework, which underscores the important roles of erosion and fire in woody plant encroachment. Collectively, research at the Jornada LTER provided complementary, quantitative support to the well‐known fertile‐islands framework. Studies at the Sevilleta LTER expanded the framework, adding fire as a major disturbance to woody plants. Conceptual models derived from the synthesis represent the general understanding of shrub encroachment that emerged from research at these two sites, and can guide management interventions aimed at reducing or mitigating undesirable ecosystem state change in many other drylands worldwide.

    more » « less
  2. This dataset contains four raster maps of shrub community structure at the Jornada Basin LTER site in southern New Mexico U.S.A. These shrub structure estimates were created by combining an existing categorical shrub map (Ji et al. 2019) with USGS LiDAR shrub height estimates from 2019. The resulting raster dataset includes four bands of spatially aligned shrub volume, cover, height, and density estimates at one hectare resolution. Data are also included in tabular format, extracted from the 1 hectare grid upon which estimates were created. These shrub structure estimates are intended to facilitate analyses of habitat structure and community dynamics within the northern Chihuahuan Desert. 
    more » « less
  3. Abstract

    Dryland ecosystems occur worldwide and play a prominent, but potentially shifting, role in global biogeochemical cycling. Widespread woody plant proliferation, often associated with declines in palatable grasses, has jeopardized livestock production in drylands and prompted attempts to reduce woody cover by chemical or mechanical means. Woody encroachment also has the potential to significantly alter terrestrial carbon storage. However, little is known of the long‐term biogeochemical consequences of woody encroachment in the broader context of its interaction with common dryland land uses, including “brush management” (woody plant clearing) and livestock grazing. Present assessments exhibit considerable variation in the consequences of these land use/land cover changes, with evidence that brush management may counteract sizeable impacts of shrub encroachment on soil biogeochemical pools. A challenge to assessing the net effects of brush management in shrub‐encroached grasslands on soil organic carbon (SOC) and total nitrogen (N) pools is that land management practices are typically considered in isolation, when they are co‐occurring phenomena. Furthermore, few studies have assessed spatial patterns in brush management and how these are affected in decades following treatment on sites with contrasting grazing histories. To address these uncertainties and interactions, we quantified the impacts of shrub encroachment and their subsequent mortality resulting from brush management (herbicide application) on SOC and N pools in a Sonoran Desert grassland where long‐term grazing manipulations (>100 yr) co‐occur with shrub encroachment and brush management. Pools of SOC and N associated with herbicided shrubs declined markedly over ~40 yr, offsetting 66% of the increases from shrub encroachment. However, spatial patterns in SOC induced by shrubs persisted over the decades following brush management. Century‐long protection from grazing did little to change SOC and N pools. Accordingly, shrub encroachment and shrub mortality from brush management each far outweighed livestock grazing impacts. Consideration of the patterns of SOC and N through space (e.g., bole‐to‐dripline gradients), time (e.g., shrub age/size), land use (e.g., livestock grazing and brush management), and their interactions will position us to improve predictions of SOC and N responses to land use/land cover change, inform C‐based management decisions, and objectively evaluate trade‐offs with other ecosystem services.

    more » « less
  4. Abstract

    Shrub encroachment is transforming arid and semiarid grasslands worldwide. Such transitions should influence predator–prey interactions because vegetation cover often affects risk perception by prey and contributes to their landscape of fear. We examined how the landscape of fear of two desert lagomorphs (black‐tailed jackrabbit,Lepus californicus; desert cottontail,Sylvilagus audubonii) changes across grassland‐to‐shrubland gradients at Jornada Basin Long Term Ecological Research site in the Chihuahuan Desert of southern New Mexico. We test whether shrub encroachment shapes risk differently for these two lagomorphs because of differences in body size and predator escape tactics. We also examine whether an ecosystem engineer of grasslands (banner‐tailed kangaroo rat,Dipodomys spectabilis) mediates risk perception through the creation of escape refuge and whether trade‐offs exist between shrub encroachment and the local reduction of banner‐tailed kangaroo rats caused by shrub expansion. We measured perceived predation risk with flight initiation distances (FIDs) and then used structural equation modeling to tease apart the hypothesized direct and indirect pathways for how shrub encroachment could affect perceived risk. A total negative effect of shrub cover on FID was supported for jackrabbits and cottontails, suggesting both species perceive shrubbier habitat as safer. Increases in fine‐scale concealment also reduced risk for cottontails, but not jackrabbits, likely because cottontails rely on crypsis to avoid predator detection whereas jackrabbits rely on speed and agility to outrun predators. Perceived risk was reduced when individuals were near kangaroo rat mounds only for cottontails because the smaller species can use banner‐tailed kangaroo rat mounds as refuge. Shrub encroachment greatly reduced the availability of mounds. Thus, a trade‐off exists for cottontails in which shrub encroachment directly reduced perceived risk, but indirectly increased perceived risk through the local extirpation of an ecosystem engineer. Our work illustrates how the expansion of shrub encroachment can create a dynamic landscape of fear for populations of prey species involving direct and indirect pathways contingent on prey body size, escape tactics, and activities of an ecosystem engineer.

    more » « less
  5. Abstract

    Grassland‐to‐shrubland state change has been widespread in arid lands globally. Long‐term records at the Jornada Basin USDA‐LTER site in the North American Chihuahuan Desert document the time series of transition from grassland dominance in the 1850s to shrubland dominance in the 1990s. This broadscale change ostensibly resulted from livestock overgrazing in conjunction with periodic drought and represents the classic “grassland‐to‐shrubland” regime shift. However, finer‐scale observations reveal a more nuanced view of this state change that includes transitions from dominance by one shrub functional type to another (e.g., based on leaf habit [evergreen vs. deciduous], N2fixation potential, and drought tolerance). We analyzed the Jornada Basin historic vegetation data using a fine‐scale grid and classified the dominant vegetation in the resulting 890 cells on each of four dates (1858, 1915, 1928, and 1998). This analysis allowed us to quantify on contrasting soil geomorphic units the rate and spatial distribution of: (1) state change from grasslands to shrublands across the Jornada Basin, (2) transitions between shrub functional groups, and (3) transitions from shrub‐to‐grass dominance. Results from our spatially explicit, decadal timescale perspective show that: (1) shrubland ecosystems developing on former grasslands were spatially and temporally more dynamic than has been generally presumed, (2) in some locations, shrublands initially developing on grasslands subsequently transitioned to ecosystems dominated by a different shrub functional type, with these changes in shrub composition likely involving changes in soil properties, and (3) some shrub‐dominated locations have reverted to grass dominance. Accordingly, traditional, broad characterizations of “grassland‐to‐shrubland” state change may be too simplistic. An accounting of these complexities and transitions from one shrub functional group to another is important for projecting state change consequences for ecosystem processes. Understanding the mechanisms, drivers, and influence of interactions between patterns and processes on transitions between shrub states defined by woody plant functional types will be germane to predicting future landscape change.

    more » « less