Date of Award:


Document Type:


Degree Name:

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Natural Resources

Department name when degree awarded

Range Ecology

Committee Chair(s)

Martyn M. Caldwell


Martyn M. Caldwell


Inge Dirmhirn


Ivan Palmblad


Herman Wiebe


Roger Wyse


Although water stress is an important selective force in many environments, it is not commonly considered to be of particular importance in tundra areas. Even though large portions of tundra may have an abundance of water, other more exposed areas may become quite dry. This microsite variability with respect to moisture stress was reflected in soil water potential measurements obtained from an alpine tundra area on Niwot Ridge in Colorado. Even though soil water potentials were consistently above -5 bars in a relatively low lying Deschampsia meadow, soil water potentials from an exposed fellfield area were often as low as -15 bars.

Since moisture stress affects a number of important physiological processes in plants and since moisture stress may develop in at least some tundra areas, this study was undertaken to determine whether the sensitivity of plant physiological processes to water stress may be one important contributing factor in determining the microsite distribution of different tundra species. The alpine tundra species examined in this study were Deschampsia caespitosa which is typically found in wet meadow habitats and Geum rossii, a species which ranges from wet meadow to exposed fellfield habitats. The arctic tundra species investigated were Dupontia fischeri which is restricted mainly to wet meadow areas and Carex aquatilis, a species ranging from wet meadows to drier, more exposed areas.

For both the arctic and al pine tundra species, though the photosynthetic capacities of the tundra species restricted mainly to wet meadow areas were higher under conditions of low moisture stress, the wider ranging tundra species were able to maintain greater photosynthetic capacity as soil moisture stress increased. Although the depression of photosynthesis with water stress in these tundra species could be partially attributed to reduced stomatal aperture, with decreased soil water potential most of the decline of photosynthesis was due to a greater non-stomatal or residual resistance, indicating a direct impact of water stress on the photosynthetic apparatus. Dark respiration did not increase with enhanced water stress. Thus, although photorespiration may have increased, increased mitochondrial respiration is unlikely involved in the depression of net photosynthesis. The wet site species typically exhibited higher photosynthesis/transpiration ratios for photosynthesis at low soil moisture stress levels; however, as soil moisture stress increased, the wider ranging species generally maintained higher photosynthesis/transpiration ratios.

At high soil water potentials stomata of the species restricted typically to wet meadow tundra areas did not appear to undergo a closing response until the bulk leaf water potential decreased; however, reduced stomatal aperture of the tundra species with a wider distribution was noted before leaf water potential dropped. Although the stomatal mechanism of wet site tundra species exhibited lower degrees of occlusion at high soil water potentials, for the more widely distributed tundra species, Carex and especially Geum, stomatal closure was less pronounced as soil water potential decreased.

The ability of Geumto maintain a low liquid phase water transfer resistance from the soil to the leaves as well as to experience relatively small reductions in turgor pressure as moisture stress increased may be important factors in maintaining a favorable leaf water balance over a rather broad range of soil moisture regimes. Differences in turgor pressure response with respect to moisture stress may be associated with differences in cell wall elasticity. Calculations of cell wall elasticity suggest that the wider ranging species have more elastic cell walls as compared with the more rigid, inelastic cell walls in the wet site tundra species. The results of this study show that tundra plants have different gas exchange sensitivities and water relation responses with respect to moisture stress and suggest that these at tributes may be important contributing factors in determining the local distribution of these species.