Local adaptation to precipitation in Elymus elymoides: Growth and drought resistance trade-offs

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We used a common garden study to quantify variation in growth and drought resistance traits in 99 populations of Elymus elymoides from a broad geographic and climatic range in the western United States. Ecotypes from drier sites produced less biomass and smaller seeds, and had traits associated with greater drought resistance: small leaves with low osmotic potential and high integrated water use efficiency (δ13C). Seasonality also influenced plant traits. Plants from regions with relatively warm, wet summers had large seeds, large leaves, and low δ13C. Irrespective of climate, we also observed trade‐offs between biomass production and drought resistance traits. Together, these results suggest that much of the phenotypic variation among E. elymoides ecotypes represents local adaptation to differences in the amount and timing of water availability. In addition, ecotypes that grow rapidly may be less able to persist under dry conditions. Land managers may be able to use this variation to improve restoration success by seeding ecotypes with multiple drought resistance traits in areas with lower precipitation. The future success of this common rangeland species will likely depend on the use of tools such as seed transfer zones to match local variation in growth and drought resistance to predicted climatic conditions.

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