Response of net ecosystem gas exchange to a simulated precipitation pulse in a semi-arid grassland: The role of native versus non-native grasses and soil texture

Travis E. Huxman, Jessica M. Cable, Danielle D. Ignace, J. Alex Eilts, Nathan B. English, Jake Weltzin, David G. Williams

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

183 Scopus citations


Physiological activity and structural dynamics in arid and semi-arid ecosystems are driven by discrete inputs or "pulses" of growing season precipitation. Here we describe the short-term dynamics of ecosystem physiology in experimental stands of native (Heteropogon contortus) and invasive (Eragrostis lehmanniana) grasses to an irrigation pulse across two geomorphic surfaces with distinctly different soils: a Pleistocene-aged surface with high clay content in a strongly horizonated soil, and a Holocene-aged surface with low clay content in homogenously structured soils. We evaluated whole-ecosystem and leaf-level CO2 and H2O exchange, soil CO2 efflux, along with plant and soil water status to understand potential constraints on whole-ecosystem carbon exchange during the initiation of the summer monsoon season. Prior to the irrigation pulse, both invasive and native grasses had less negative pre-dawn water potentials (Ψpd), greater leaf photosynthetic rates (Anet) and stomatal conductance (gs), and greater rates of net ecosystem carbon exchange (NEE) on the Pleistocene surface than on the Holocene. Twenty-four hours following the experimental application of a 39 mm irrigation pulse, soil CO2 efflux increased leading to all plots losing CO2 to the atmosphere over the course of a day. Invasive species stands had greater evapotranspiration rates (ET) immediately following the precipitation pulse than did native stands, while maximum instantaneous NEE increased for both species and surfaces at roughly the same rate. The differential ET patterns through time were correlated with an earlier decline in NEE in the invasive species as compared to the native species plots. Plots with invasive species accumulated between 5% and 33% of the carbon that plots with the native species accumulated over the 15-day pulse period. Taken together, these results indicate that system CO2 efflux (both the physical displacement of soil CO2 by water along with plant and microbial respiration) strongly controls whole-ecosystem carbon exchange during precipitation pulses. Since CO2 and H2O loss to the atmosphere was partially driven by species effects on soil microclimate, understanding the mechanistic relationships between the soil characteristics, plant ecophysiological responses, and canopy structural dynamics will be important for understanding the effects of shifting precipitation and vegetation patterns in semi-arid environments.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)295-305
Number of pages11
Issue number2
StatePublished - Oct 2004

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Acknowledgements A number of undergraduate students participated in this research effort, including Janet Chen, Sam Day, Sam Waskow, Josh Polacheck, Dan Koepke and Phil Allen. Their enthusiasm at 2:00 a.m. is appreciated. The Santa Rita Experimental Range provided help in the construction and maintenance of these rainout shelters and housed crews during the experiment. These shelters were built and operated with funds from a USDA-CSREES award to Jake F. Weltzin and David G. Williams (Grant # 00– 35101–9308). Stan Smith kindly provided an additional LI-6400 for use in this experiment. The University of Arizona provided substantial financial support for this project. The comments of three anonymous referees and participants of PrecipNet (an NCEAS Working Group) significantly improved the ideas in this manuscript.


  • Evapotranspiration
  • Invasive species
  • Net ecosystem exchange
  • Precipitation manipulation
  • Santa Rita Experimental Range

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