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How Native Plants and Animals Deal with Drought

Even drought-tolerant plants and animals stuggle with record temperatures and lack of rainfall.  

Over the past 100 years, Southern California has gone through several periods of drought. However normal this may be, droughts are becoming more frequent and more intense due to climate change. The year 2013 was one of the driest years in California’s recorded history. Lack of rainfall does not only affect people; plants and animals suffer as well, even our local native species that have evolved to survive occasional dry periods.

All plants lose some water during photosynthesis, when plants convert the sun’s energy into food. Characteristics of local plant species help better absorb and more efficiently use water during to survive periods of drought. For example, California Sagebrush (Artemisia californica) has needle-like leaves that can be dropped when times are bad. White sage (Salive apiana) has a waxy coat and nearly white leaves; both the color and the hairs reflect sunlight, thereby keeping the leaves cooler and limiting its loss of water. Lemonade berry (Rhus integrifolia) leaves are curved, tough, and waxy to hold moisture in.

While both native plants and wildlife are used to surviving some drought, the extended drought has immense affects on local animals as well. Food, water, and cover are harder to find. A decrease in food likely results in fewer offspring, and those that are born may not get enough food survive. The lack of rain prevents streams and pools from forming, disrupting life cycles of local amphibians. Animals that normally hide in bushy plants do not have as much cover, and will be more vulnerable to predators.

Many animals that live on the Landmarks have learned to survive drought. Scrub jays (Aphelocoma californica) and acorn woodpeckers (Melanerpes formicivoru) cache, or store, thousands of live oak acorns each year, much more than are eaten in a single season. Mountain lions (Puma concolor) get most of their water from prey and are not usually affected much by drought directly. Several water troughs from ranching days still can be seen on the land, a reminder of the historic use of the land as a cattle ranch. These troughs are filled by Irvine Ranch Conservancy volunteers and are used by animals. Irvine Lake and our two natural springs also buffer the effects of drought on wildlife.

While it may be too late to depend on Mother Nature for rain, you can help decrease the impact felt from drought. Water can be conserved by taking shorter showers, removing lawns, and planting native flowers and shrubs in your garden that need less water. While out in the land, stay on trail so drought-stricken plants aren’t stressed more from being trampled. Train to be a fire watch volunteer. Irvine Ranch Conservancy also has many volunteer activities available to help get water to native plants in restoration areas.

Members of the public can also help the land during a drought by being vigilant in watching for fire hazards. This year has had more incidents of Red Flag Warnings from the National Weather Service than any in recent history, and the possibility for catastrophic wildfire has been high. Reporting suspicious or hazardous behavior – such as cars pulled over onto dry grass or use of sparking power equipment – during Red Flag Warnings is key to preventing wildfires.

For more information on volunteer activities to help bring water to local habitat, please visit Find these activities by using the Category drop-down menu and selecting “Stewardship.”