Do competitors modulate rare plant response to precipitation change?

Jonathan M. Levine, A. Kathryn Mceachern, Clark Cowan

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

51 Scopus citations


Ecologists increasingly suspect that climate change will directly impact species physiology, demography, and phenology, but also indirectly affect these measures via changes to the surrounding community. Unfortunately, few studies examine both the direct and indirect pathways of impact. Doing so is important because altered competitive pressures can reduce or magnify the direct responses of a focal species to climate change. Here, we examine the effects of changing rainfall on three rare annual plant species in the presence and absence of competition on the California Channel Islands. We used rain-out shelters and hand watering to exclude and augment early, late, and season-long rainfall, spanning the wide range of precipitation change forecast for the region. In the absence of competition, droughts reduced the population growth rates of two of three focal annuals, while increased rainfall was only sometimes beneficial, As compared to the focal species, the dominant competitors were more sensitive to the precipitation treatments, benefiting from increased season-long precipitation and harmed by droughts. Importantly, the response of two of three competitors to the precipitation treatments tended to be positively correlated with those of the focal annuals. Although this leads to the expectation that increased competition will counter the direct benefits of favorable conditions, such indirect effects of precipitation change proved weak to nonexistent in our experiment. Competitors had little influence on the precipitation response of two focal species, due to their low sensitivity to competition and highly variable precipitation responses. Competition did affect how our third focal species responded to precipitation change, but this effect only approached significance, and whether it truly resulted from competitor response to precipitation change was unclear. Our work suggests that even when competitors respond to climate change, these responses may have little effect on the focal species. Ultimately, the strength of the indirect effect depends on how strongly climate change alters competition, and how sensitive focal species are to changes in competition.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)130-140
Number of pages11
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2010
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


  • Annual plant population
  • Bronius diandrus
  • California channel islands
  • Climate change
  • Competition
  • Gilia tenuiflora ssp
  • Hoffmannii
  • Lasthenia californica
  • Malacothrix indecora
  • Phacelia insularis var. Insularis
  • Precipitation


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