Shifts in the phenology of plant and animal species or in the migratory arrival of birds are seen as ‘fingerprints’ of global warming. However, even if such responses have been documented in large continent-wide datasets of the northern hemisphere, all studies to date correlate the phenological pattern of various taxa with gradual climatic trends. Here, we report a previously unobserved phenomenon: severe drought and heavy rain events caused phenological shifts in plants of the same magnitude as one decade of gradual warming. We present data from two vegetation periods in an experimental setting containing the first evidence of shifted phenological response of 10 grassland and heath species to simulated 100-year extreme weather events in Central Europe. Averaged over all species, 32 days of drought significantly advanced the mid-flowering date by 4 days. The flowering length was significantly extended by 4 days. Heavy rainfall (170 mm over 14 days) had no significant effect on the mid-flowering date. However, heavy rainfall reduced the flowering length by several days. Observed shifts were species-specific, (e.g. drought advanced the mid-flowering date for Holcus lanatus by 1.5 days and delayed the mid-flowering date for Calluna vulgaris by 5.7 days, heavy rain advanced mid-flowering date of Lotus corniculatus by 26.6 days and shortened the flowering length of the same species by 36.9 days). Interestingly, the phenological response of individual species was modified by community composition. For example, the mid-flowering date of C. vulgaris was delayed after drought by 9.3 days in communities composed of grasses and dwarf shrubs compared with communities composed of dwarf shrubs only. This indicates that responses to extreme events are context specific. Additionally, the phenological response of experimental communities to extreme weather events can be modified by the functional diversity of a stand. Future studies on phenological response patterns related to climate change would profit from explicitly addressing the role of extreme weather events.
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