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Ecology. 2007 Jan;88(1):32-6.

Episodic death across species of desert shrubs.

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  • 1Department of Evolution, Ecology and Organismal Biology, Ohio State University, 318 West 12th Avenue, Columbus, Ohio 43210-1293, USA.


Extreme events shape population and community trajectories. We report episodic mortality across common species of thousands of long-lived perennials individually tagged and monitored for 20 years in the Colorado Desert of California following severe regional drought. Demographic records from 1984 to 2004 show 15 years of virtual stasis in populations of adult shrubs and cacti, punctuated by a 55-100% die-off of six of the seven most common perennial species. In this episode, adults that experienced reduced growth in a lesser drought during 1984-1989 failed to survive the drought of 2002. The significance of this event is potentially profound because population dynamics of long-lived plants can be far more strongly affected by deaths of adults, which in deserts potentially live for centuries, than by seedling births or deaths. Differential mortality and rates of recovery during and after extreme climatic events quite likely determine the species composition of plant and associated animal communities for at least decades. The die-off recorded in this closely monitored community provides a unique window into the mechanics of this process of species decline and replacement.

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