Master's Theses



Degree Name

Master of Science (MS)


The phenotype of two Andropogon gerardii subspecies, big bluestem and sand bluestem, varies broadly throughout the Great Plains of North America, giving rise to ecotypes within the species. This study sought to discriminate between genetic and environmental variation of big bluestem and sand bluestem by examining gas exchange and leaf anatomy in common gardens across a climatic gradient of the Great Plains. Thirteen populations of big bluestem and one population of sand bluestem, constituting five ecotypes, were planted in community plots and a single plant plots in a common garden at each of four sites ranging from western Kansas to southern Illinois. Photosynthesis, stomatal conductance, intercellular CO2, transpiration, and intrinsic water use efficiency were measured three times in the 2010 growing season. In addition, leaf thickness, midrib thickness, bulliform cells, interveinal distance, and vein size were assessed by light microscopy. Abundant phenotypic variation exists among ecotypes within community plots. At all planting sites, big bluestem ecotypes from xeric environments had higher photosynthesis, stomatal conductance, and transpiration compared to mesic ecotypes. Single plant plots also had abundant phenotypic variation; ecotypes native to xeric environments also had higher photosynthesis, stomatal conductance, and transpiration, but differences were more distinct. In addition, sand bluestem, which was only planted in single plant plots, had similar photosynthesis, stomatal conductance, and transpiration to the big bluestem ecotype native to the most xeric environment. Sand bluestem also had higher water use efficiency and lower intercellular CO2 than any big bluestem ecotype. Leaf anatomy assessments indicated xeric ecotypes of A. gerardii had thicker leaves and fewer bulliform cells. Environmental variation was as important as genetic variation for gas exchange and leaf anatomy in both community and single plant plots. Compared to xeric sites, mesic sites had higher photosynthesis, stomatal conductance, and water use efficiency and lower intercellular CO2 and transpiration in community and single plant plots. Leaves from mesic sites also had thicker midribs, larger veins, and a greater proportion of bulliform cells. Ecotypes of A. gerardii across the Great Plains are adapted to water availability. Drought-adapted ecotypes of A. gerardii were shorter in stature and had smaller, thicker, narrower leaves, which reduced the evaporative surface area of these plants. Evidently, A. gerardii controls water loss by reducing evaporative surface area more than it does by increasing the proportion of bulliform cells. This allows drought-adapted ecotypes to have higher photosynthetic rates, stomatal conductances, and transpiration rates in both mesic and xeric environments compared to ecotypes native to mesic environments. This study brings to light potential responses of big bluestem ecotypes to climate change. This study also indicates the phenotypic variation among big bluestem could prove useful in the restoration of native prairies.


Dr. Brian Maricle

Date of Award

Spring 2012

Document Type



© 2012 Jacob T. Olsen


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