Water use trade-offs and optimal adaptations to pulse-driven arid ecosystems


S. Schwinning, Department of Biology, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, Utah 84112–0840, USA (tel. + 1 801-581-5927; fax: + 1 801-581-4665; e-mail: schwinning@biology.utah.edu).


  • 1We introduce a hydraulic soil-plant model with water uptake from two soil layers; one a pulse-dominated shallow soil layer, the other a deeper soil layer with continuous, but generally less than saturated soil moisture. Water uptake is linked to photosynthetic carbon assimilation through a photosynthesis model for C3 plants.
  • 2A genetic algorithm is used to identify character suites that maximize photosynthetic carbon gain for plants that experience a particular soil moisture pattern. The character suites include allocation fraction to stem, leaves and shallow root, stem capacitance and stem water storage capacity, maximal leaf conductance and sensitivity of leaf conductance to plant water potential, and a critical soil water potential at which shallow roots cease to transfer water.
  • 3We find that if pulse water is a more important water source than deeper soil water in the environment, optimal phenotypes lean towards adaptations that maximize pulse water use (small root : shoot ratio, predominantly shallow root system, high leaf conductance with high stomatal sensitivity to plant water status). If deeper soil water is more important, phenotypes lean towards adaptations that maximize deeper soil water use (large root : shoot ratio, predominantly deep root system, lower leaf conductance with low stomatal sensitivity). Stem succulence is adaptive only when deeper soil water is unavailable.
  • 4From among the continuum of derived phenotypes, four phenotypes are selected that resemble the character suites of winter annuals, drought-deciduous perennials, evergreen perennials and stem succulents. Under common conditions, these phenotypes reproduce many of the responses to drought and water pulse observed in their respective life-form counterparts. The comparison also highlights the differences in plant life-form sensitivity to summer and winter drought conditions.
  • 5Based on these results, we discuss the possible role of annual precipitation patterns in shaping plant adaptations and determining the plant composition of arid and semi-arid environments.