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Plastic Traits of an Exotic Grass Contribute to Its Abundance but Are Not Always Favourable

By Jennifer Firn, Suzanne M. Prober and Yvonne M. Buckley


In herbaceous ecosystems worldwide, biodiversity has been negatively impacted by changed grazing regimes and nutrient enrichment. Altered disturbance regimes are thought to favour invasive species that have a high phenotypic plasticity, although most studies measure plasticity under controlled conditions in the greenhouse and then assume plasticity is an advantage in the field. Here, we compare trait plasticity between three co-occurring, C4 perennial grass species, an invader Eragrostis curvula, and natives Eragrostis sororia and Aristida personata to grazing and fertilizer in a three-year field trial. We measured abundances and several leaf traits known to correlate with strategies used by plants to fix carbon and acquire resources, i.e. specific leaf area (SLA), leaf dry matter content (LDMC), leaf nutrient concentrations (N, C∶N, P), assimilation rates (Amax) and photosynthetic nitrogen use efficiency (PNUE). In the control treatment (grazed only), trait values for SLA, leaf C∶N ratios, Amax and PNUE differed significantly between the three grass species. When trait values were compared across treatments, E. curvula showed higher trait plasticity than the native grasses, and this correlated with an increase in abundance across all but the grazed/fertilized treatment. The native grasses showed little trait plasticity in response to the treatments. Aristida personata decreased significantly in the treatments where E. curvula increased, and E. sororia abundance increased possibly due to increased rainfall and not in response to treatments or invader abundance. Overall, we found that plasticity did not favour an increase in abundance of E. curvula under the grazed/fertilized treatment likely because leaf nutrient contents increased and subsequently its' palatability to consumers. E. curvula also displayed a higher resource use efficiency than the native grasses. These findings suggest resource conditions and disturbance regimes can be manipulated to disadvantage the success of even plastic exotic species

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