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The effect of timing of growing season drought on flowering of a dominant C4 grass

Abstract

Timing of precipitation is equally important as amount for determining ecosystem function, especially aboveground net primary productivity (ANPP), in a number of ecosystems. In tallgrass prairie of the Central Plains of North America, grass flowering stalks of dominant C4 grasses, such as Andropogon gerardii, can account for more than 70 % of ANPP, or almost none of it, as the number of flowering stalks produced is highly variable. Although growing season precipitation amount is important for driving variation in flowering stalk production, it remains unknown whether there are critical periods within the growing season in which sufficient rainfall must occur to allow for flowering. The effect of timing of rainfall deficit (drought) on flowering of A. gerardii, was tested by excluding rainfall during three periods within the growing season (starting in mid-April, mid-May and mid-June). Mid-summer drought (starting in mid-June) strongly reduced the flowering rate (e.g., density and biomass) of A. gerardii (e.g., as high as 94 % compared to the control), suggesting flowering is highly sensitive to precipitation at this time. This effect appeared to be related to plant water status at the time of flowering stalk initiation, rather than an indirect consequence of reduced C assimilation. Our results suggest that increased frequency of growing season drought forecast with climate change could reduce sexual reproduction in this dominant grass species, particularly if it coincides with timing of flowering stalk initiation, with important implications for ecosystem functioning.

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Acknowledgments

We thank the many individuals who helped make this work possible. Fieldwork assistance was provided by Lauren Baur, Francis Chaves, Elsie Denton, Andrew Felton, Ava Hoffman, Brian Leinwetter, Whitney Mowll, and Mariah Patton. Laboratory assistance was provided by Brianna Magbual and Katie Michaels. Meghan Avolio and Sally Koerner provided help with the shelter design. Philip Turk’s advice on statistical analysis was very valuable. Alan Knapp and Troy Ocheltree provided many valuable insights on overall experimental design and plant physiology. None of this work would have been possible without the Konza Prairie Biological Station and the people who work there, especially Patrick O’Neal. Support was provided by the National Science Foundation Long-term Ecological Research program.

Author contribution statement

J. D. D. and M. D. S. conceived and designed the experiment. J. D. D. executed the study, analyzed the data, made all tables and figures, and wrote the first draft of the manuscript. J. D. D. and M. D. S. contributed to revisions.

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Correspondence to Melinda D. Smith.

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Communicated by Rowan Sage.

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Dietrich, J.D., Smith, M.D. The effect of timing of growing season drought on flowering of a dominant C4 grass. Oecologia 181, 391–399 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00442-016-3579-4

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Keywords

  • Andropogon gerardii
  • Aboveground net primary productivity
  • Ecophysiology
  • Precipitation timing
  • Tallgrass prairie