Living in Drylands: Functional Adaptations of Trees and Shrubs to Cope with High Temperatures and Water Scarcity
Plant functioning and survival in drylands are affected by the combination of high solar radiation, high temperatures, low relative humidity, and the scarcity of available water. Many ecophysiological studies have dealt with the adaptation of plants to cope with these stresses in hot deserts, which are the territories that have better evoked the idea of a dryland. Nevertheless, drylands can also be found in some other areas of the Earth that are under the Mediterranean-type climates, which imposes a strong aridity during summer. In this review, plant species from hot deserts and Mediterranean-type climates serve as examples for describing and analyzing the different responses of trees and shrubs to aridity in drylands, with special emphasis on the structural and functional adaptations of plants to avoid the negative effects of high temperatures under drought conditions. First, we analyze the adaptations of plants to reduce the input of energy by diminishing the absorbed solar radiation through (i) modifications of leaf angle and (ii) changes in leaf optical properties. Afterwards, we analyze several strategies that enhance the ability for heat dissipation through (i) leaf size reduction and changes in leaf shape (e.g., through lobed leaves), and (ii) increased transpiration rates (i.e., water-spender strategy), with negative consequences in terms of photosynthetic capacity and water consumption, respectively. Finally, we also discuss the alternative strategy showed by water-saver plants, a common drought resistance strategy in hot and dry environments that reduces water consumption at the expense of diminishing the ability for leaf cooling. In conclusion, trees and shrubs living in drylands have developed effective functional adaptations to cope with the combination of high temperature and water scarcity, all of them with clear benefits for plant functioning and survival, but also with different costs concerning water use, carbon gain, and/or leaf cooling.
Keywords: aridity; heat dissipation; hot deserts; leaf angle; leaf reflectance; lobation; Mediterranean-type climates; small leaves; water-saver; water-spender