Sensitivity of Dryland Plant Allometry to Climate

Jennifer A. Rudgers, Alesia Hallmark, Stephanie R. Baker, Lauren Baur, Kristofer M. Hall, Marcy E. Litvak, Esteban H. Muldavin, William T. Pockman, Kenneth D. Whitney

Understanding how plants allocate their biomass to different structures and functions is fundamental to measuring ecosystem health and services, such as productivity or carbon storage. Allometry describes the relationships between an organism’s physical attributes and its size. Allometries that relate non-destructive measures of plant size, such as percentage cover, plant volume or stem density, to biomass are widely used in plant ecology to estimate plant productivity. Such size-biomass allometry is often assumed to be invariant for a given plant species, plant functional group, or ecosystem type.  However, adjustments to how plants partition biomass may be an important component of the short- or long-term responses of plants to abiotic conditions, such as climate. We used 18 years of size-biomass data for 85 plant species to investigate the sensitivity of allometry to precipitation, temperature, or drought across two seasons and four ecosystems in central New Mexico, USA. Size-biomass allometry varied with climate in 65-70% of plant species. Closely-related plant species had similar sensitivities of allometry to climate. Annuals were less sensitive than perennials, and forbs were less sensitive than grasses or shrubs. Our results show that many plant species adjust patterns in the partitioning of aboveground biomass under different climates and highlight the importance of long-term data for understanding functional differences among species.

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