Altered leaf elemental composition with climate change is linked to reductions in photosynthesis, growth and survival in a semi-arid shrubland

Lupe León-Sánchez, Emilio Nicolás, Iván Prieto, Pedro Nortes, Fernando T. Maestre, José Ignacio Querejeta*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

39 Scopus citations


Climate change will increase heat and drought stress in many dryland areas, which could reduce soil nutrient availability for plants and aggravate nutrient limitation of primary productivity. Any negative impacts of climate change on foliar nutrient contents would be expected to negatively affect the photosynthetic capacity, water use efficiency and overall fitness of dryland vegetation. We conducted a 4-year manipulative experiment using open top chambers and rainout shelters to assess the impacts of warming (~2°C, W), rainfall reduction (~30%, RR) and their combination (W + RR) on the nutrient status and ecophysiological performance of six native shrub species of contrasting phylogeny in a semi-arid ecosystem. Leaf nutrient status and gas exchange were assessed yearly, whereas biomass production and survival were measured at the end of the study. Warming (W and W + RR) advanced shoot growth phenology and reduced foliar macro- (N, P, K) and micronutrient (Cu, Fe, Zn) concentrations (by 8%–18% and 14%–56% respectively), net photosynthetic rate (32%), above-ground biomass production (28%–39%) and survival (23%–46%). Decreased photosynthesis and growth in W and W + RR plants were primarily linked to enhanced nutritional constraints on carbon fixation. Poor leaf nutrient status in W and W + RR plants partly decoupled carbon assimilation from water flux and led to drastic reductions in water use efficiency (WUEi; ~41%) across species. The RR treatment moderately decreased foliar macro- and micronutrients (6%–17%, except for Zn) and biomass production (22%). The interactive impacts of warming and rainfall reduction (W + RR treatment) on plant performance were generally smaller than expected from additive single-factor effects. Synthesis. Large decreases in plant nutrient pool size and productivity combined with increased mortality during hotter droughts will reduce vegetation cover and nutrient retention capacity, thereby disrupting biogeochemical processes and accelerating dryland degradation with impending climate change. Increased macro- and micronutrient co-limitation of photosynthesis with forecasted climate change conditions may offset any gains in WUEi and productivity derived from anthropogenic CO2 elevation, thereby increasing dryland vegetation vulnerability to drought stress in a warmer and drier climate. The generalized reduction in leaf nutrient contents with warming compromises plant nutritional quality for herbivores, with potential cascading negative effects across trophic levels.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)47-60
Number of pages14
JournalJournal of Ecology
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 1 2020


  • climate aridification
  • drought stress
  • drylands
  • non-stomatal limitation of photosynthesis
  • stoichiometric constraints
  • warming
  • water use efficiency

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Ecology
  • Plant Science


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