From conduits to communities: plant water use strategies and evapotranspiration in a semi-arid ecosystem in south-western Australia

Patrick Mitchell

    Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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    Abstract

    [Truncated abstract] Understanding the ecohydrological dynamics of native vegetation can provide a benchmark for future efforts to restore landscape hydrology and allow predictions of potential landscape responses to climate uncertainty and associated changes in vegetation cover. The key drivers of evapotranspiration (Et) involved in maintaining a hydrological balance that minimises deep drainage in semi-arid ecosystems operate at a range of scales, and in this thesis I assessed the water relations of functionally and taxonomically diverse plant communities in south-western Australia from the leaf-level to ecosystem scale. For three key communities; heath shrubland, mallee (small multistemmed eucalypt) -heath, and open eucalypt woodland, populating a typical catenary sequence of soil types along a slope, I addressed the following questions: 1) What are the predominant water use strategies of wheatbelt native plant communities and what underlying trade-offs determine the distribution of plant water use strategies along the topographical gradient? 2) What are the roles of soil water and hydraulic limitation in controlling the spatial and temporal dynamics of transpiration in different functional types? 3) What is the magnitude and partitioning of total Et in the woodland community and what processes determine Et fluxes on a seasonal and annual basis? 4) What are the seasonal differences in Et among contrasting community-types and how do these patterns relate to canopy attributes and transpiration capacity along the topographical gradient? A key philosophical step in working with species-rich communities was to develop the concept of 'hydraulic functional types' (HFTs) to identify groupings of species using associations of physiological and morphological traits that define their hydrological functioning. .... However, as shallow soils dried during spring and summer, Et fluxes were significantly lower at the heath site (0.35 versus 0.66 mm day-1 for the woodland in February), demonstrating that the seasonality of Et fluxes differentiates communityscale contributions to regional water balance. Land-surface exchange of water over native vegetation is by no means uniform, but varies according to the spatial and temporal availability of water along topographical gradients. In general, shallow soils present fewer opportunities for water use partitioning and favour drought hardiness and a transpiration response that tracks recent rainfall patterns, whereas deeper soils promote greater differentiation in water use strategy and support canopies responsive to atmospheric demand. This thesis provides a unique description of ecosystem water balance in a global biodiversity hotspot by viewing complex vegetation mosaics in terms of their relevant hydrological units. This information is fundamental to sustainable agroforestry and revegetation efforts and our ability to gauge possible changes in vegetation structure and function under a changing climate.
    Original languageEnglish
    QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
    Publication statusUnpublished - 2009

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