Consequences of drought severity for tropical live oak (Quercus oleoides) in Mesoamerica

Serge Rambal, Jeannine Cavender-Bares, Kimberlee L. Sparks, Jed P. Sparks

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations


In two Costa Rican and three Honduran sites that vary in rainfall and soil properties, we used natural isotopes, a soil water balance model, and broad-scale climate-based drought indices to study shifts in water use with ontogeny from seedlings to mature tropical live oak (Quercus oleoides) trees. Water use patterns help to explain persistence of this broadly distributed species in Mesoamerica and to evaluate likely threats of ongoing climate changes. At the end of the dry season, soil δ18O profiles can be described by one-phase exponential decay curves. Minimum values reflect geographic origins of the last significant rain event, and curvature is inversely related to canopy closure, demonstrating its role in controlling topsoil evaporation. Partitioning of soil water sources for transpiration was analyzed with a mixing model. In the Costa Rican sites, in a relatively dry year, saplings and mature trees took up water from the upper soil. In a relatively wet year in the Honduran sites, we observed deeper water extraction. In all sites, soil storage dampens extreme variation in water availability. The size dependence of water uptake with larger stems exploiting deeper layers is translated into variation in bulk leaf δ13C-based water use efficiency (WUE) with the exception of mature trees. From 1932 to 2015, drought severity was evaluated with the Standardized Precipitation Evapotranspiration Index (SPEI) concurrently with simulations of the soil water balance model. Drought occurrence increased, regardless of the time period, averaged across 6, 12, or 24 months. All ontogenetic stages in all populations experienced frequent water limitation. We found evidence for linear trends toward aridification with increases of return periods of drought for October SPEI-24 declining from 42 to 6 yr in Costa Rica and from 21 to 7 yr in Honduras and recent occurrence of multiyear droughts from 2013 to 2016. October SPEI-12 and SPEI-24 were significantly related to the Oceanic Niño Indices demonstrating that local inter-annual variations in drought severity in Mesoamerica are modulated by large-scale climate forces. Drought severity in the near-term future depends on the extent to which the Pacific will adopt a more La Niña-like vs. a more El Niño-like state under ongoing climatic changes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere02135
JournalEcological Applications
Issue number6
StatePublished - Sep 1 2020

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We thank National Science Foundation IOS: 0843665 for funding to J. Cavender‐Bares and J. P. Sparks and Marileth Briceño, Belinda Befort, Alyson Center, George Pilz, Timothy Longwell, and Esau Zuniga for assistance in the field.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2020 by the Ecological Society of America


  • Costa Rica
  • El Nino
  • Honduras
  • Mesoamerica
  • Quercus oleoides
  • Standardized Precipitation Evapotranspiration Index
  • climate change
  • drought indices
  • ontogenic stages
  • soil water uptake


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