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Ecology. 2010 Jun;91(6):1628-38.

Linking precipitation and C3-C4 plant production to resource dynamics in higher-trophic-level consumers.

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University of New Mexico, Biology Department, MSCO3 2020, 1 University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, New Mexico 87131-0001, USA.


In many ecosystems, seasonal shifts in temperature and precipitation induce pulses of primary productivity that vary in phenology, abundance, and nutritional quality. Variation in these resource pulses could strongly influence community composition and ecosystem function, because these pervasive bottom-up forces play a primary role in determining the biomass, life cycles, and interactions of organisms across trophic levels. The focus of this research is to understand how consumers across trophic levels alter resource use and assimilation over seasonal and interannual timescales in response to climatically driven changes in pulses of primary productivity. We measured the carbon isotope ratios (delta(13)C) of plant, arthropod, and lizard tissues in the northern Chihuahuan Desert to quantify the relative importance of primary production from plants using C3 and C4 photosynthesis for consumers. Summer monsoonal rains on the Sevilleta Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) site in New Mexico support a pulse of C4 plant production that has tissue delta(13)C values distinct from C3 plants. During a year when precipitation patterns were relatively normal, delta(13)C measurements showed that consumers used and assimilated significantly more C4-derived carbon over the course of a summer, tracking the seasonal increase in abundance of C4 plants. In the following spring, after a failure in winter precipitation and the associated failure of spring C3 plant growth, consumers showed elevated assimilation of C4-derived carbon relative to a normal rainfall regime. These findings provide insight into how climate, pulsed resources, and temporal trophic dynamics may interact to shape semiarid grasslands such as the Chihuahuan Desert in the present and future.

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