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Saguaro Distribution under Nurse Plants in Arizona's Sonoran Desert: Directional and Microclimate Influences

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The saguaro cactus, an icon of the American southwestern desert, defines the extent of the Sonoran Desert through portions of its range. Saguaros rely upon nurse plants for establishment and survival in the harsh temperature and moisture regime of the desert. Freezing temperatures limit the range of the saguaro to the north in Arizona. However, nurse plants extend the range of saguaros by providing more moderate conditions beneath their canopies. This study focuses on precisely these small, highly localized temperature variations, which, we suggest, are linked to regional-scale patterns of distribution of the species, particularly in marginal, cold-limited locales.

We sampled 291 saguaros over thirty populations in Arizona, in the northern portion of their range. Saguaros establish under the south side of their nurse's canopy in the coldest parts of their range more often than expected, while a significant distributional bias is not observed in those in warmer, more moderate plots. To further investigate air temperature as a possible factor in the directional bias of saguaro establishment, we collected microclimate data under the north and south sides of the canopies of two common nurse plants, Cercidium microphyllum (a tree) and Ambrosia deltoidea (a shrub) in Phoenix, Arizona. South sides of nurses have significantly higher minimum temperatures than do the north sides. Survivorship in the coldest areas appears to be greatest under the south side of a nurse's canopy, where warmer wintertime microclimatic conditions occur. We suggest that within-canopy microclimatic variability under a single nurse plant may be reflected in regional distributional and in the survivorship patterns of saguaros throughout Arizona.

Keywords: Ambrosia deltoidea; Carnegiea gigantea; Cercidium microphyllum; microclimate; nurse plants

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: 1: University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee 2: The State University of New York, Geneseo

Publication date: November 1, 2003


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