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Soil water availability shapes species richness in mid-latitude shrub steppe plant communities

March 10, 2020


Ecological communities are controlled by multiple, interacting abiotic and biotic factors that influence the distribution, abundance, and diversity of species. These processes jointly determine resource availability, resource competition, and ultimately species richness. For many terrestrial ecosystems in dryland climates, soil water availability is the most frequent limiting resource for plant species. We used field sampling coupled with process‐based soil water balance modeling to explore the relative importance of multiple macroclimatic, ecohydrological, and biotic variables on plant species and functional type richness at the landscape scale in dryland plant communities.


Dryland plant communities dominated by big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata ) that span climatic and elevational gradients in Wyoming, USA.


We quantified species richness at 1,000 m2 and used multiple regression to determine whether mean climatic conditions, multiple metrics of soil moisture from a soil water balance model (SOILWAT2), soil physical and chemical properties, and shrub stand structure (biotic) variables were related to species and functional type richness.


Species richness varied between 16 and 54 across sites. We found that species and functional type richness were related to both macroclimate and ecohydrology, but ecohydrology explained slightly more variation than climate. Biotic variables were always secondary to macroclimate and ecohydrology in our models. Variance partitioning revealed that large portions of variability in species (~54%), forb (~47%), and grass (~40%) richness were explained by ecohydrological variables.


Our results highlight the importance of the spatial and temporal distribution of soil water for dryland plant species richness and suggest that documenting the ways in which climate, vegetation, and soil properties interact to determine soil water availability is critical for understanding biodiversity patterns in dryland plant communities. This work has relevance for other mid‐latitude, shrub‐dominated dryland plant communities where soil water availability strongly influences ecosystem structure and function.

Publication Year 2020
Title Soil water availability shapes species richness in mid-latitude shrub steppe plant communities
DOI 10.1111/jvs.12874
Authors Samuel E. Jordan, Kyle A. Palmquist, John B. Bradford, William K. Lauenroth
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Journal of Vegetation Science
Index ID 70210922
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Southwest Biological Science Center