Mechanisms of plant survival and mortality during drought: why do some plants survive while others succumb to drought?


Author for correspondence:Nate McDowell Tel:+1 505 6652909 Fax:+1 505 6653866 Email:



II. Consequences of vegetation mortality3
III.Global patterns of mortality3
IV.Hypotheses on mechanisms of drought-related mortality4
V.Evidence for hypothesized mechanisms5
VI.Implications of future climate on hypothesized mortality mechanisms13


Severe droughts have been associated with regional-scale forest mortality worldwide. Climate change is expected to exacerbate regional mortality events; however, prediction remains difficult because the physiological mechanisms underlying drought survival and mortality are poorly understood. We developed a hydraulically based theory considering carbon balance and insect resistance that allowed development and examination of hypotheses regarding survival and mortality. Multiple mechanisms may cause mortality during drought. A common mechanism for plants with isohydric regulation of water status results from avoidance of drought-induced hydraulic failure via stomatal closure, resulting in carbon starvation and a cascade of downstream effects such as reduced resistance to biotic agents. Mortality by hydraulic failure per se may occur for isohydric seedlings or trees near their maximum height. Although anisohydric plants are relatively drought-tolerant, they are predisposed to hydraulic failure because they operate with narrower hydraulic safety margins during drought. Elevated temperatures should exacerbate carbon starvation and hydraulic failure. Biotic agents may amplify and be amplified by drought-induced plant stress. Wet multidecadal climate oscillations may increase plant susceptibility to drought-induced mortality by stimulating shifts in hydraulic architecture, effectively predisposing plants to water stress. Climate warming and increased frequency of extreme events will probably cause increased regional mortality episodes. Isohydric and anisohydric water potential regulation may partition species between survival and mortality, and, as such, incorporating this hydraulic framework may be effective for modeling plant survival and mortality under future climate conditions.