California is likely to experience increased frequency of drought events as a consequence of global climate change. A tremendous challenge for plant ecologists is to understand how plant communities, such as the ecologically and culturally important Californian oak woodlands, are likely to respond to drought. Part of the solution to this challenge lies with understanding the plumbing system – the hydraulics – of individual species and how vulnerable their xylem network is to water deficit.
Using a range of novel optical techniques Dr. Skelton’s research delves into these plumbing networks within leaves and stems and visualises the damaging processes that occur in them in response to desiccation. To scale up to whole oak woodlands they monitored field-based responses during the severe drought that California experienced in 2014/2015. The research shows that oak woodland species vary in their vulnerability to water deficit and that, although oak trees are resilient and can tolerate severe water deficit, they are not impervious to future drought events.