Summary 1. Models predict that the duration and intensity of drought will increase under future climate regimes. Although semi‐arid grasslands are adapted to moisture limitation, the sensitivity of semi‐arid grassland vegetation to extreme and sustained dry periods that may occur in the future has not been tested. 2. In this study, we analysed vegetation cover data from an 11‐year drought manipulation in the semi‐arid shortgrass steppe in Colorado, USA. We examined changes in total vegetation cover, dominant plant (Bouteloua gracilis) cover and ruderal cover in plots receiving 25% and 50% of ambient precipitation during the growing season. 3. We found that 11 years of drought resulted in large reductions in total cover and cover of the dominant species, but significant differences did not emerge until the 4th and 7th year of drought. Drought severity significantly influenced the degree to which ruderal cover increased in the later period of the drought, but reductions in B. gracilis cover under drought were not significantly different under different drought severities. Bouteloua gracilis reduction did correspond strongly with increases in ruderal cover and species richness, suggesting that the dominant species plays a strong role in maintaining the structure of communities in the shortgrass steppe. 4. Synthesis. Our results suggest that the shortgrass steppe, and most notably the dominant species B. gracilis, can be significantly perturbed by long‐term droughts that may be more common in future decades. By quantifying the resistance‐limit of a drought‐tolerant system, our results can inform theories of stability and management decisions for grassland systems under new climate regimes and provide a new temporal context for previous and future manipulation studies.
Journal of Ecology – Wiley
Published: Nov 1, 2011
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