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Why the sagebrush grows: Ecologists explore arid plant survival

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Posted November 5, 2013
Why the Sagebrush Grows
A Utah State University field technician unrolls irrigation tubing to conduct a hydraulic life experiment in a sageland near Utah’s Bear Lake. The scientists found this natural phenomenon stimulates microbial activity and increases the plants’ uptake of nitrogen. Credit: Utah State University
Ecologists are another step closer to understanding a natural phenomenon that enables desert plants to access water and nutrients they desperately need – even in the driest circumstances.

“We’ve long known plants reach deep below surface soil to take water up into their shoots and leaves, says John Stark, professor in USU’s Department of Biology and Ecology Center. “What we’re discovering is, through a process called hydraulic lift, plants also leak water into the bone-dry surface soil to release nutrients and stir microbial activity critical to the plants’ survival.”

Stark, with colleagues Zoe Cardon, senior scientist with the Ecosystems Center of the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole, Mass., Patrick Herron of the University of Connecticut and Jed Rasmussen of USU, published findings from their hydraulic lift experiment with sagebrush, the first investigation of its kind, in the Nov. 4, 2013, online Early Edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The team’s research was supported by the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Energy.

USU ecologist Martyn Caldwell, emeritus professor in USU’s Department of Wildland Resources, pioneered studies of hydraulic lift in the 1980s and since then, Stark says, scientists have pondered consequences of the process for plant survival.

“Our field investigation, which we carried out in a remote area of mature sageland near Utah’s Bear Lake in 2006 and 2007, was a way of trying to learn more about this process,” he says.

Read more at: Phys.org

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