At least it is a dry cold: the global distribution of freeze-thaw and drought stress and the traits that may impart poly-tolerance in conifers. Article

McCulloh, Katherine A, Augustine, Steven P, Goke, Alex et al. (2023). At least it is a dry cold: the global distribution of freeze-thaw and drought stress and the traits that may impart poly-tolerance in conifers. . TREE PHYSIOLOGY, 43(1), 1-15. 10.1093/treephys/tpac102

cited authors

  • McCulloh, Katherine A; Augustine, Steven P; Goke, Alex; Jordan, Rachel; Krieg, Christopher P; O'Keefe, Kimberly; Smith, Duncan D


  • Conifers inhabit some of the most challenging landscapes where multiple abiotic stressors (e.g., aridity, freezing temperatures) often co-occur. Physiological tolerance to multiple stressors ('poly-tolerance') is thought to be rare because exposure to one stress generally limits responses to another through functional trade-offs. However, the capacity to exhibit poly-tolerance may be greater when combined abiotic stressors have similar physiological impacts, such as the disruption of hydraulic function imposed by drought or freezing. Here, we reviewed empirical data in light of theoretical expectations for conifer adaptations to drought and freeze-thaw cycles with particular attention to hydraulic traits of the stem and leaf. Additionally, we examined the commonality and spatial distribution of poly-stress along indices of these combined stressors. We found that locations with the highest values of our poly-stress index (PSi) are characterized by moderate drought and moderate freeze-thaw, and most of the global conifer distribution occupies areas of moderate poly-stress. Among traits examined, we found diverse responses to the stressors. Turgor loss point did not correlate with freeze-thaw or drought stress individually, but did with the PSi, albeit inverse to what was hypothesized. Leaf mass per area was more strongly linked with drought stress than the poly-stress and not at all with freeze-thaw stress. In stems, the water potential causing 50% loss of hydraulic conductivity became more negative with increasing drought stress and poly-stress but did not correlate with freeze-thaw stress. For these traits, we identified a striking lack of coverage for substantial portions of species ranges, particularly at the upper boundaries of their respective PSis, demonstrating a critical gap in our understanding of trait prevalence and plasticity along these stress gradients. Future research should investigate traits that confer tolerance to both freeze-thaw and drought stress in a wide range of species across broad geographic scales.

publication date

  • January 1, 2023

published in


  • Cold Temperature
  • Cycadopsida
  • Droughts
  • Freezing
  • Plant Leaves
  • Tracheophyta
  • Water

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