An unprecedented era of climatic volatility is altering ecosystems across our planet1. The potential scale, pace and consequences of this global change have been modelled extensively2, yet little empirical research has quantified the impacts of extreme climate events on the composition of contemporary ecological communities. Here, we quantified the responses of 423 sympatric species of plants, arthropods, birds, reptiles and mammals to California’s drought of 2012–2015—the driest period in the past 1,200 years3 for this global biodiversity hotspot. Plants were most responsive to one-year water deficits, whereas vertebrates responded to longer-term deficits, and extended drought had the greatest impact on carnivorous animals. Locally rare species were more likely to increase in numbers and abundant species were more likely to decline in response to drought, and this negative density dependence was remarkably consistent across taxa and drought durations. Our system-wide analysis reveals that droughts indirectly promote the long-term persistence of rare species by stressing dominant species throughout the food web. These findings highlight processes that shape community structure in highly variable environments and provide insights into whole-community responses to modern climate volatility.

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This study was funded by a collaborative NSF grant to L.R.P. (DEB-1628754), J.S.B. (DEB-1354931) and K.N.S. (DEB-1355055). Additional funds were provided by grants from the USDA, BLM, USFWS and The Nature Conservancy to J.S.B., and a grant from the CDFW to W.T.B. Logistical and in-kind support was provided by the BLM and CDFW. Valuable assistance was provided by R. Endicott, J. Chesnut, L. Saslaw, K. Sharum, J. Hurl and S. Butterfield. We thank the numerous field assistants and volunteers who collected the data used in this study. Trapping and handling of rodents was conducted in accordance with permits provided by UC IACUC (R304), HSU IACUC (13.14.W.109-A), USFWS (TE1572210 and TE37418A-3) and CDFW (SC 9452). Christmas Bird Count data were compiled by R. Zackary and provided by the BLM.

Author information


  1. School of Environmental and Forest Sciences, University of Washington, Seattle, WA, USA

    • Laura R. Prugh
    •  & Nicolas Deguines
  2. Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research, University of Colorado Boulder, Boulder, CO, USA

    • Joshua B. Grinath
    •  & Katherine N. Suding
  3. Department of Biology, Middle Tennessee State University, Murfreesboro, TN, USA

    • Joshua B. Grinath
  4. Department of Wildlife, Humboldt State University, Arcata, CA, USA

    • William T. Bean
  5. California Department of Fish and Wildlife, Los Osos, CA, USA

    • Robert Stafford
  6. Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management, University of California Berkeley, Berkeley, CA, USA

    • Justin S. Brashares


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L.R.P. and J.S.B. designed the study. L.R.P., J.S.B., N.D., J.B.G., W.T.B. and R.S. collected the data. L.R.P., N.D. and J.B.G. conducted the statistical analyses. All authors wrote the paper.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Laura R. Prugh.

Supplementary information

  1. Supplementary Information

    Supplementary tables 1–4, Supplementary figures 1–4

  2. Supplementary Data 1

    Data file (csv format) containing taxonomic information, life history traits, pre-drought abundance (Npre) and results of linear regressions examining the effects of 1-year, 2-year, and 3-year droughts on abundance (DI1, DI2, DI3, respectively)

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