Hydraulic traits that buffer deep-rooted plants from changes in hydrology and climate
Centre for Ecosystem Management / School of Science
Funding information available at: https://doi.org/10.1002/hyp.13587
Groundwater-dependent ecosystems are often defined by the presence of deeply rooted phreatophytic plants. When connected to groundwater, phreatophytes in arid regions decouple ecosystem net primary productivity from precipitation, underscoring a disproportionately high biodiversity and exchange of resources relative to surrounding areas. However, groundwater-dependent ecosystems are widely threatened due to the effects of water diversions, groundwater abstraction, and higher frequencies of episodic drought and heat waves. The resilience of these ecosystems to shifting ecohydrological–climatological conditions will depend largely on the capacity of dominant, phreatophytic plants to cope with dramatic reductions in water availability and increases in atmospheric water demand. This paper disentangles the broad range of hydraulic traits expressed by phreatophytic vegetation to better understand their capacity to survive or even thrive under shifting ecohydrological conditions. We focus on three elements of plant water relations: (a) hydraulic architecture (including root area to leaf area ratios and rooting depth), (b) xylem structure and function, and (c) stomatal regulation. We place the expression of these traits across a continuum of phreatophytic habits from obligate to semi-obligate to semi-facultative to facultative. Although many species occupy multiple phreatophytic niches depending on access to groundwater, we anticipate that populations are largely locally adapted to a narrow range of ecohydrological conditions regardless of gene flow across ecohydrological gradients. Consequently, we hypothesize that reductions in available groundwater and increases in atmospheric water demand will result in either (a) stand replacement of obligate phreatophytic species with more facultative species as a function of widespread mortality in highly groundwater-dependent populations or (b) directional selection in semi-obligate and semi-facultative phreatophytes towards the expression of traits associated with highly facultative phreatophytes in the absence of species replacement. Anticipated shifts in the expression of hydraulic traits may have profound impacts on water cycling processes, species assemblages, and habitat structure of groundwater-dependent woodlands and riparian forests.