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We measured dieback and mortality in a chaparral shrub community at a chaparral/desert ecotone following four years of below-average rainfall. Ecotones are important systems in which to examine plant and community responses to extreme and prolonged drought conditions and the potential impact of global change on plant distributions and community composition. Following a particularly severe drought year, dieback and mortality were documented for seven co-dominant shrub species. We examined whether mortality was related to species ecology, leaf traits, or water relations. Dieback and mortality were greatest in two non-sprouting species. These species also had high xylem cavitation resistance and low specific leaf area compared to several sprouting species. Among two sprouting congeners, mortality was greater in the more shallowly rooted species, even though this species was more cavitation resistant. Across all species, those that were more resistant to cavitation had greater mortality. Evidently, high resistance to xylem cavitation does not prevent adult plant mortality at chaparral/desert ecotones. A series of extreme drought years could preferentially reduce or eliminate non-sprouting species from mixed chaparral populations, causing a shift in community structure and contributing to desertification.