Linking growth strategies to long-term population dynamics in a guild of desert annuals


A. L. Angert (tel. +1 520 621 4022, e-mail


  • 1Combining long-term observational studies with comparative physiological ecology can yield a deeper understanding of the contribution of individual function to population and community dynamics. Sonoran Desert winter annuals exhibit striking year-to-year variation in population dynamics that is driven by variable precipitation, but species differ in the strength of demographic response to precipitation and hence in the degree of temporal variance in population dynamics. To understand the physiological mechanisms of differing population dynamic responses to environmental variation, we investigated interspecific differences in functional traits that mediate responsiveness to precipitation.
  • 2We conducted sequential harvests throughout the growing season to examine relative growth rate and biomass allocation patterns. We then related growth parameters to leaf-level carbon isotope discrimination (a time-integrated measure of water-use efficiency) and long-term demographic variation.
  • 3We hypothesized that water-use efficiency should trade-off with rapid growth rates. Furthermore, we hypothesized that species having efficient water use should have buffered population dynamics in dry years but sacrifice high growth and fecundity in wet years, resulting in low long-term variance in demographic success. Conversely, species with high growth capacity should be very responsive to infrequent periods of high precipitation and thus exhibit high temporal variance.
  • 4Species differed in seasonal relative growth rate and allocation patterns. Species with the highest relative growth rates rapidly deployed large leaf area displays following mid-season rainfall. Species with intermediate relative growth rates exhibited high biomass assimilation rates per unit leaf area. Species with low relative growth rates exhibited low leaf area ratios and low assimilation rates per unit leaf area.
  • 5Relative growth rate was positively related to leaf carbon isotope discrimination, consistent with a trade-off between growth rate and water-use efficiency.
  • 6Seasonal relative growth rate did not predict long-term demographic variance. However, leaf area plasticity in response to precipitation was positively related to long-term demographic variance. Our results illustrate how morphological and physiological traits influence demographic tracking of environmental variability and demonstrate how species differences in functional strategies determine population and community dynamics.