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Convergence across biomes to a common rain-use efficiency

Abstract

Water availability limits plant growth and production in almost all terrestrial ecosystems1,2,3,4,5. However, biomes differ substantially in sensitivity of aboveground net primary production (ANPP) to between-year variation in precipitation6,7,8. Average rain-use efficiency (RUE; ANPP/precipitation) also varies between biomes, supposedly because of differences in vegetation structure and/or biogeochemical constraints8. Here we show that RUE decreases across biomes as mean annual precipitation increases. However, during the driest years at each site, there is convergence to a common maximum RUE (RUEmax) that is typical of arid ecosystems. RUEmax was also identified by experimentally altering the degree of limitation by water and other resources. Thus, in years when water is most limiting, deserts, grasslands and forests all exhibit the same rate of biomass production per unit rainfall, despite differences in physiognomy and site-level RUE. Global climate models9,10 predict increased between-year variability in precipitation, more frequent extreme drought events, and changes in temperature. Forecasts of future ecosystem behaviour should take into account this convergent feature of terrestrial biomes.

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Figure 1: Between-year variation in production across a precipitation gradient and a maximum rain-use efficiency.
Figure 2: Hypothetical consequences of a maximum rain-use efficiency and evidence from experimental manipulations.

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Acknowledgements

We thank J. Bronstein, J. Cable, G. Davidowitz, A. Eilts, B. Enquist, D. Ignace, A. Kerkhoff, D. Potts, D. Schimel, L. Venable and M. Pavao-Zuckerman for comments on the manuscript. This work derived from an NCEAS working group, PrecipNet (principal investigator M.E.L.), supported by the National Science Foundation, the University of California, and the Santa Barbara campus. We acknowledge the support of the United States Department of Energy, the National Park Service, the National Science Foundation, and the United States Department of Agriculture.

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Correspondence to Travis E. Huxman or Melinda D. Smith.

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Supplementary Tables

Table 1) Site information, mean annual precipitation, mean annual net primary production for the 14 study sites; Table 2) Stepwise multiple linear regression analysis of aboveground net primary production using annual precipitation, measures of intra-annual precipitation variability, maximum growing season temperature, and previous yr ANPP, for the 14 study sites categorized by their long-term mean ANPP. (DOC 78 kb)

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Huxman, T., Smith, M., Fay, P. et al. Convergence across biomes to a common rain-use efficiency. Nature 429, 651–654 (2004). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature02561

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