Plant removals in perennial grassland: Vegetation dynamics, decomposers, soil biodiversity, and ecosystem properties

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

  • External authors:
  • David A. Wardle
  • Karen I. Bonner
  • Gary M. Barker
  • Gregor W. Yeates
  • Kathryn S. Nicholson
  • Richard N. Watson
  • Anwar Ghani

Abstract

The consequences of permanent loss of species or species groups from plant communities are poorly understood, although there is increasing evidence that individual species effects are important in modifying ecosystem properties. We conducted a field experiment in a New Zealand perennial grassland ecosystem, creating artificial vegetation gaps and imposing manipulation treatments on the reestablishing vegetation. Treatments consisted of continual removal of different subsets or 'functional groups' of the flora. We monitored vegetation and soil biotic and chemical properties over a 3-yr period. Plant competitive effects were clear: removal of the C3 grass Lolium perenne L. enhanced vegetative cover, biomass, and species richness of both the C4 grass and dicotyledonous weed functional groups and had either positive or negative effects on the legume Trifolium repens L., depending on season. Treatments significantly affected total plant cover and biomass; in particular, C4 grass removal reduced total plant biomass in summer, because no other species had appropriate phenology. Removal of C3 grasses reduced total root biomass and drastically enhanced overall shoot-to-root biomass ratios. Aboveground net primary productivity (NPP) was not strongly affected by any treatment, indicating strong compensatory effects between different functional components of the flora. Removing all plants often negatively affected three further trophic levels of the decomposer functional food web: microflora, microbe-feeding nematodes, and predaceous nematodes. However, as long as plants were present, we did not find strong effects of removal treatments, NPP, or plant biomass on these trophic groupings, which instead were most closely related to spatial variation in soil chemical properties across all trophic levels, soil N in particular. Larger decomposer organisms, i.e., Collembola and earthworms, were unresponsive to any factor other than removal of all plants, which reduced their populations. We also considered five functional components of the soil biota at finer taxonomic levels: three decomposer components (microflora, microbe-feeding nematodes, predaceous nematodes) and two herbivore groups (nematodes and arthropods). Taxa within these five groups responded to removal treatments, indicating that plant community composition has multitrophic effects at higher levels of taxonomic resolution. The principal ordination axes summarizing community-level data for different trophic groups in the soil food web were related to each other in several instances, but the plant ordination axes were only significantly related to those of the soil microfloral community. There were time lag effects, with ordination axes of soil-associated herbivorous arthropods and microbial-feeding nematodes being related to ordination axes representing plant community structure at earlier measurement dates. Taxonomic diversity of some soil organism groups was linked to plant removals or to plant diversity. For herbivorous arthropods, removal of C4 grasses enhanced diversity; there were negative correlations between plant and arthropod diversity, presumably because of negative influences of C4 species in the most diverse treatments. There was evidence of lag relationships between diversity of plants and that of the three decomposer groups, indicating multitrophic effects of altering plant diversity. Relatively small effects of plant removal on the decomposer food web were also apparent in soil processes regulated by this food web. Decomposition rates of substrates added to soils showed no relationship with treatment, and rates of CO2 evolution from the soil were only adversely affected when all plants were removed. Few plant functional-group effects on soil nutrient dynamics were identified. Although some treatments affected temporal variability (and thus stability) of soil biotic properties (particularly CO2 release) throughout the experiment, there was no evidence of destabilizing effects of plant removals. Our data provide evidence that permanent exclusion of plant species from the species pool can have important consequences for overall vegetation composition in addition to the direct effects of vegetation removal, and various potential effects on both the above- and belowground subsystems. The nature of many of these effects is driven by which plant species are lost from the system, which depends on the various attributes or traits of these species.

Bibliographical metadata

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)535-568
Number of pages33
JournalEcological Monographs
Volume69
Issue number4
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - Nov 1999