Year of Award


Document Type


Degree Type

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Degree Name

Organismal Biology and Ecology

Department or School/College

Division of Biological Sciences

Committee Co-chair

Anna Sala, Elizabeth Crone

Commitee Members

Ragan Callaway, Lila Fishman, Thomas H. DeLuca


Astragalus scaphoides, life history, matrix modeling, nonstructural carbohydrates (NSC), prolonged dormancy, vegetative dormancy


University of Montana


Prolonged dormancy is a stage in which mature plants fail to resprout during the growing season and instead remain alive belowground. Though it is relatively common, the causes and consequences of this intriguing stage have remained elusive. In this dissertation, I investigate the causes and consequences of prolonged dormancy in a long lived perennial herb, Astragalus scaphoides.

First, I use a combination of demography and ecophysiology to study the proximate mechanisms associated with prolonged dormancy. Analysis of a long-term demographic dataset indicates that both endogenous factors (e.g. age, condition, and history) and exogenous factors (e.g. climate and spatial variation) are associated with dormancy. I then investigate the association between stored resources and dormancy. My results indicate that individual plants with low levels of stored available carbon are more likely to enter prolonged dormancy. Surprisingly, individuals increased their mobile carbon concentrations while dormant, presumably by remobilizing structural carbon into mobile forms. Since stored resources integrate past conditions and performance with current state, these results can explain why some individuals remain belowground while others emerge to grow and reproduce.

I used matrix models to examine the ultimate causes and consequences of prolonged dormancy. I found evidence that prolonged dormancy acts as a conservative strategy that allows plants to avoid the risk of a variable environment. Further, my results demonstrate that intermediate levels of dormancy result in the highest fitness advantage. Finally, I measured the trade-offs associated with emerging during times of environmental stress. Although plants showed remarkable physiological tolerance to stress, stress led to demographic costs. Therefore, prolonged dormancy is shown to be a beneficial strategy in a variable environment.

Together, my research identifies both the proximate causes of prolonged dormancy, as well as the ultimate consequences of remaining belowground during the growing season. Therefore, my research not only identifies why some plants go dormant while others emerge, but also explains the prevalence of this intriguing life stage in the life histories of so many perennial plants.



© Copyright 2010 Jennifer R. Gremer