Courtesy of UCR Today
Courtesy of UCR Today

Louis Santiago, a UCR associate professor of physiological ecology will begin a two-year project to study the effects of extreme drought conditions on shrubs and trees after receiving a grant totaling $187,165 from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

California is in its fourth year of drought, which has caused a swift and immeasurable increase in vegetation mortality and is leading to a decline in biodiversity, drastic changes in many ecosystems and magnified chances for invasive species to inhabit the area.

“We will be studying a group of 15 plant species that occur at our site in Morongo Valley. We are studying all of the woody plant species there,” Santiago elaborated. “We have a lot of data on the physiology of these 15 species, now we have to go out and see who survived the big drought.”

The site that Santiago has chosen to study is an area known to react rapidly to changes in vegetation due to record-breaking droughts. Both physiological and ecological effects that foster survival will be documented in order to identify what kind of effects an ongoing drought may have on vegetation.

Santiago’s goal is to find out which types of plants are more drought-resistant and what characteristics these kinds of plants display. From his previous research, he discovered that plants with very deep roots have a tendency to be less drought-resistant than their shorter root counterparts.

One of the specific components that has been heavily observed throughout this project is the plant’s xylem. This section of the plant is made up of transport tissue that helps facilitate the movement of water from the roots to its leaves. The deprivation of water generated by the drought can lead to the xylem ceasing to properly perform its function, triggering the plant’s death.

“It is now urgent that we link the identity of survivors with physiological mechanisms, such as deep roots or specialized leaf and wood types, so that in future droughts, we can predict which plants will live and which ones will die,” Santiago told UCR Today.

The focus of this work aligns with the mission of NSF because it works to study the health of forests and watersheds, while addressing climate change, drought resistance in plants and natural resource management.

While Santiago presently has two graduates that will be helping him full-time, he intends to have several undergraduate students involved throughout the course of this project.