Is water availability really the main environmental factor controlling the phenology of woody vegetation in the central Sahel?

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Journal Article
Plant Ecology, 2012, 213 (5), pp. 861 - 870
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Rainfall distribution and the soil moisture regime have been recognized to be the key drivers of the phenological rhythms in Sahelian woody plants, although different climate triggers have been assumed to be involved in determining the date of the onset of the phenophase. However, almost no comparisons have been made of the actual relative predictive power of these environmental factors. The aim of our study was to quantify the ability of several factors to predict phenophase occurrence in the dominant woody populations of northern Mali. Canopy leafing, flowering and fruiting were monitored from May 2005 to July 2007. Multiple logistic regressions were used to test the predictive power of cumulative rainfall, soil moisture, air temperature, air humidity and day length, with time lags of up to 2 months. Artificial variables derived from time lags observed in phenophases were included as predictors to account for possible auto-correlation and cross-correlation among phenophases. Surprisingly, a decrease in temperature associated with different time lags was most often found to be the strongest predictor of both leafing and reproductive phenophases. In Sahelian shrubs, morphological and physiological adaptations strongly contribute to the relative independence of their activity from water availability, leaf phenology being a way to adjust the plant water balance to current water availability and atmospheric water content. This study provides insight towards the development of a mechanistic understanding of phenological control in the Sahel, which is becoming increasingly important in the context of expected climate changes.
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