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Study: Climate change affecting desert plants, animals

Some declining with drier, hotter conditions

Sonoran Desert plants are acclimated to the heat, but higher-than-normal spring temperatures may come as a surprise to mequite and palo verde trees and other desert flora.

This spring is predicted to be hotter and drier than before, which could mean area some plants will suffer. While some trees and shrubs show declines, cacti increase with the heat.

Scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey and National Park Service have completed a study identifying plant species near Tucson that are being affected by climate change, the USGS announced last week.

"By carefully examining long-term records of how vegetation has responded to variability in numerous climate-related parameters, such as temperature, mean rainfall and aridity, scientists have been able to find the key to predicting the future for complex ecosystems," said Marcia McNutt, USGS director.

The results were collected from Saguaro National Park, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, the Desert Laboratory and the University of Arizona's Santa Rita Experimental Range using 100 years of plant monitoring studies, the USGS said. 

The study identified specific Sonoran Desert plants that experienced a decline in areas with low precipitation, according to USGS. The plants include the velvet mesquite, foothill paloverde and ocotillo, perennial grasses and subshrubs. However, an increase in cacti is expected with the high temperatures.

In previous studies, annual precipitation dropped below 15 inches, which greatly reduced the productivity of perennial grasses like bush muhly and curly mesquite grass, according to USGS. 

"This work integrates the results from four of the longest-running vegetation monitoring sites in the world to provide a more complete picture of how the plant composition, structure and productivity of a desert ecosystem may change in the future," said Seth Munson, a USGS scientist and lead author of the study.

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Animals living in the areas that have seen declines in plant productivity are finding less available food, the USGS said.

The decline in precipitation has affected the white ratany shrub which is a main food source for the endangered desert tortoise. Currently, the shrub is being closely monitored by NPS, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Arizona Game and Fish.

"This type of study is an essential first step in gaining insight to the world our children will be inheriting," said McNutt.

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Arizona Sonora Desert