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Plant response to climate change varies with topograpy, interactions with neighbors, and ecotype

Liancourt, P., L.A. Spence, D.S. Song, A. Lkhagva, A. Sharkuu, B. Boldgiv, B. Helliker, P.S. Petraitis, and B.B. Casper. 2012. Ecology 94:444-453


Predicting the future of any given species represents an unprecedented challenge in light of the many environmental and biological factors that affect organismal performance and that also interact with drivers of global change. In a three-year experiment set in the Mongolian steppe, we examined the response of the common grass Festuca lenensis to manipulated temperature and water while controlling for topographic variation, plant-plant interactions, and ecotypic differentiation. Plant survival and growth responses to a warmer, drier climate varied within the landscape. Response to simulated increased precipitation occurred only in the absence of neighbors, demonstrating that plant-plant interactions can supersede the effects of climate change. F. lenensis also showed evidence of local adaptation in populations that were only 300m apart. Individuals from the steep and dry upper slope showed a higher stress/drought tolerance whereas those from the more productive lower slope showed a higher biomass production and a greater ability to cope with competition. Moreover, the response of this species to increased precipitation was ecotype-specific, with water addition benefiting only the least stress-tolerant ecotype from the lower slope origin. This multifaceted approach illustrates the importance of placing climate change experiments within a realistic ecological and evolutionary framework. Existing sources of variation impacting plant performance may buffer or obscure climate change effects.

Key Words

competition, Festuca lenensis, local adaptation, Northern Mongolia, open-topchamber (OTC), steppe grassland, stress, warming, watering