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Drought negatively affects communities on a foundation tree: growth rings predict diversity


Understanding how communities respond to extreme climatic events is important for predicting the impact of climate change on biodiversity. The plant vigor and stress hypotheses provide a theoretical framework for understanding how arthropods respond to stress, but are rarely tested at the community level. Following a record drought, we compared the communities of arthropods on pinyon pine (Pinus edulis) that exhibited a gradient in physical traits related to environmental stress (e.g., growth rate, branch dieback, and needle retention). Six patterns emerged that show how one of the predicted outcomes of climate change in the southwestern USA (i.e., increased drought severity) alters the communities of a foundation tree species. In accordance with the plant vigor hypothesis, increasing tree stress was correlated with an eight to tenfold decline in arthropod species richness and abundance. Trees that were more similar in their level of stress had more similar arthropod communities. Both foliage quantity and quality contributed to arthropod community structure. Individual species and feeding groups differed in their responses to plant stress, but most were negatively affected. Arthropod richness (r 2 = 0.48) and abundance (r 2 = 0.48) on individual trees were positively correlated with the tree’s radial growth during drought. This relationship suggests that tree ring analysis may be used as a predictor of arthropod diversity, which is similar to findings with ectomycorrhizal fungi. A contrast of our findings on arthropod abundance with published data on colonization by mutualistic fungi on the same trees demonstrates that at low stress these two communities respond differently, but at high stress both are negatively affected. These results suggest that the effect of extreme climatic events such as drought on foundation tree species are likely to decrease multi-trophic diversity and shift arthropod community composition, which in turn could cascade to affect other associated taxa.

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We thank Randy Swaty, Crescent Scudder, Brandon Scott, Neil Cobb, Peter Price and members of the Whitham and Gehring lab groups. Funding was provided by NSF grants DEB-0236204, DEB-0087017, DEB-0415563, and DEB-0816675. Special thanks to the Sunset Crater National Monument and the United States Forest Service staff for their cooperation. This research complies with current laws and policies of the Coconino National Forest, USA.

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Correspondence to Adrian C. Stone.

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Communicated by Roland Brandl.

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Stone, A.C., Gehring, C.A. & Whitham, T.G. Drought negatively affects communities on a foundation tree: growth rings predict diversity. Oecologia 164, 751–761 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00442-010-1684-3

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  • Arthropod community
  • Drought stress
  • Multi-trophic comparisons
  • Pinus edulis
  • Tree rings