Catastrophic hydraulic failure will likely be an important mechanism contributing to large-scale tree dieback caused by increased frequency and intensity of droughts under global climate change. To compare the susceptibility of 22 temperate deciduous tree and shrub species to hydraulic failure during a record drought in the southeastern USA, we quantified leaf desiccation, native embolism, wood density, stomatal conductance and predawn and midday leaf water potential at four sites with varying drought intensities. At the two driest sites, there was widespread leaf wilting and desiccation, and most species exhibited predawn leaf water potentials of ≤3 MPa and >60% loss of xylem conductivity in branches. Although species with high wood density were more resistant to cavitation, they had higher levels of native embolism and greater canopy dieback than species with low wood density. This unexpected result can be explained by the failure of species with dense wood to avert a decline in water potential to dangerous levels during the drought. Leaf water potential was negatively correlated with wood density, and the relationship was strongest under conditions of severe water deficit. Species with low wood density avoided catastrophic embolism by relying on an avoidance strategy that involves partial drought deciduousness, higher sensitivity of stomata to leaf water potential and perhaps greater rooting depth. These species therefore maintained water potential at levels that ensured a greater margin of safety against embolism. These differences among species may mediate rapid shifts in species composition of temperate forests if droughts intensify due to climate change.
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