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  1. Abstract

    Climate models predict more frequent, prolonged, and extreme droughts in the future. Therefore, drought experiments varying in amount and duration across a range of biogeographical scenarios provide a powerful tool for estimating how drought will affect future ecosystems. Past experimental work has been focused on the manipulation of meteorological drought: Rainout shelters are used to reduce precipitation inputs into the soil. This work has been instrumental in our ability to predict the expected effects of altered rainfall. But what about the nonrainfall components of drought? We review recent literature on the co-occurring and sometimes divergent impacts of atmospheric drying and meteorological drying. We discuss how manipulating meteorological drought or rainfall alone may not predict future changes in plant productivity, composition, or species interactions that result from climate change induced droughts. We make recommendations for how to improve these experiments using manipulations of relative humidity.

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  2. Abstract

    The predicted intensification of the North American Monsoon is expected to alter growing season rainfall patterns in the southwestern United States. These patterns, which have historically been characterized by frequent small rain events, are anticipated to shift towards a more extreme precipitation regime consisting of fewer, but larger rain events. Furthermore, human activities are contributing to increased atmospheric nitrogen deposition throughout this dryland region.

    Alterations in rainfall size and frequency, along with changes in nitrogen availability, are likely to have significant consequences for above‐ground net primary production (ANPP) and plant community dynamics in drylands. The conceptual bucket model predicts that a shift towards fewer, but larger rain events could promote greater rates of ANPP in these regions by maintaining soil moisture availability above drought stress thresholds for longer periods during the growing season. However, only a few short‐term studies have tested this hypothesis, and none have explored the interaction between altered rainfall patterns and nitrogen enrichment.

    To address this knowledge gap, we conducted a 14‐year rainfall addition and nitrogen fertilization experiment in a northern Chihuahuan Desert grassland to explore the long‐term impacts of changes in monsoon rainfall size and frequency, along with chronic nitrogen enrichment, on ANPP (measured as peak biomass) and plant community dynamics.

    Contrary to bucket model predictions, small frequent rain events promoted comparable rates of ANPP to large infrequent rain events in the absence of nitrogen enrichment. It was only when nitrogen limitation was alleviated that large infrequent rain events resulted in the greatest ANPP. Furthermore, we found that nitrogen enrichment had the greatest impact on plant community composition under the small frequent rainfall regime.

    Synthesis. Our long‐term field experiment highlights limitations of the bucket model by demonstrating that water and nitrogen availability sequentially limit dryland ecological processes. Specifically, our findings suggest that while water availability is the primary limiting factor for above‐ground net primary production in these ecosystems, nitrogen limitation becomes increasingly important when water is not limiting. Moreover, our findings reveal that small frequent rain events play an important but underappreciated role in driving dryland ecosystem dynamics.

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  3. Free, publicly-accessible full text available November 1, 2024
  4. Free, publicly-accessible full text available July 1, 2024
  5. Abstract

    Drylands are key contributors to interannual variation in the terrestrial carbon sink, which has been attributed primarily to broad‐scale climatic anomalies that disproportionately affect net primary production (NPP) in these ecosystems. Current knowledge around the patterns and controls of NPP is based largely on measurements of aboveground net primary production (ANPP), particularly in the context of altered precipitation regimes. Limited evidence suggests belowground net primary production (BNPP), a major input to the terrestrial carbon pool, may respond differently than ANPP to precipitation, as well as other drivers of environmental change, such as nitrogen deposition and fire. Yet long‐term measurements of BNPP are rare, contributing to uncertainty in carbon cycle assessments. Here, we used 16 years of annual NPP measurements to investigate responses of ANPP and BNPP to several environmental change drivers across a grassland–shrubland transition zone in the northern Chihuahuan Desert. ANPP was positively correlated with annual precipitation across this landscape; however, this relationship was weaker within sites. BNPP, on the other hand, was weakly correlated with precipitation only in Chihuahuan Desert shrubland. Although NPP generally exhibited similar trends among sites, temporal correlations between ANPP and BNPP within sites were weak. We found chronic nitrogen enrichment stimulated ANPP, whereas a one‐time prescribed burn reduced ANPP for nearly a decade. Surprisingly, BNPP was largely unaffected by these factors. Together, our results suggest that BNPP is driven by a different set of controls than ANPP. Furthermore, our findings imply belowground production cannot be inferred from aboveground measurements in dryland ecosystems. Improving understanding around the patterns and controls of dryland NPP at interannual to decadal scales is fundamentally important because of their measurable impact on the global carbon cycle. This study underscores the need for more long‐term measurements of BNPP to improve assessments of the terrestrial carbon sink, particularly in the context of ongoing environmental change.

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  6. The widespread extirpation of megafauna may have destabilized ecosystems and altered biodiversity globally. Most megafauna extinctions occurred before the modern record, leaving it unclear how their loss impacts current biodiversity. We report the long-term effects of reintroducing plains bison ( Bison bison ) in a tallgrass prairie versus two land uses that commonly occur in many North American grasslands: 1) no grazing and 2) intensive growing-season grazing by domesticated cattle ( Bos taurus ). Compared to ungrazed areas, reintroducing bison increased native plant species richness by 103% at local scales (10 m 2 ) and 86% at the catchment scale. Gains in richness continued for 29 y and were resilient to the most extreme drought in four decades. These gains are now among the largest recorded increases in species richness due to grazing in grasslands globally. Grazing by domestic cattle also increased native plant species richness, but by less than half as much as bison. This study indicates that some ecosystems maintain a latent potential for increased native plant species richness following the reintroduction of native herbivores, which was unmatched by domesticated grazers. Native-grazer gains in richness were resilient to an extreme drought, a pressure likely to become more common under future global environmental change. 
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  7. Abstract

    The encroachment of woody plants into grasslands is a global phenomenon with implications for biodiversity and ecosystem function. Understanding and predicting the pace of expansion and the underlying processes that control it are key challenges in the study and management of woody encroachment. Theory from spatial population biology predicts that the occurrence and speed of expansion should depend sensitively on the nature of conspecific density dependence. If fitness is maximized at the low‐density encroachment edge, then shrub expansion should be “pulled” forward. However, encroaching shrubs have been shown to exhibit positive feedbacks, whereby shrub establishment modifies the environment in ways that facilitate further shrub recruitment and survival. In this case there may be a fitness cost to shrubs at low density causing expansion to be “pushed” from behind the leading edge. We studied the spatial dynamics of creosotebush (Larrea tridentata), which has a history of encroachment into Chihuahuan Desert grasslands over the past century. We used demographic data from observational censuses and seedling transplant experiments to test the strength and direction of density dependence in shrub fitness along a gradient of shrub density at the grass–shrub ecotone. We also used seed‐drop experiments and wind data to construct a mechanistic seed‐dispersal kernel, then connected demography and dispersal data within a spatial integral projection model (SIPM) to predict the dynamics of shrub expansion. Contrary to expectations based on potential for positive feedbacks, the shrub encroachment wave is “pulled” by maximum fitness at the low‐density front. However, the predicted pace of expansion was strikingly slow (ca. 8 cm/year), and this prediction was supported by independent resurveys of the ecotone showing little to no change in the spatial extent of shrub cover over 12 years. Encroachment speed was acutely sensitive to seedling recruitment, suggesting that this population may be primed for pulses of expansion under conditions that are favorable for recruitment. Our integration of observations, experiments, and modeling reveals not only that this ecotone is effectively stalled under current conditions but also why that is so and how that may change as the environment changes.

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