Simple Plant Traits Explain Functional Group Diversity Decline in Novel Grassland Communities of Texas
Polley, H. Wayne
Previous research has found that plant diversity declines more quickly in exotic than native grassland plots, which offers a model system for testing whether diversity decline is associated with specific plant traits. In a common garden experiment in the Southern Great Plains in central Texas, USA, we studied monocultures and 9-species mixtures of either all exotic or all native grassland species. A total of 36 native and exotic species were paired by phylogeny and functional group. We used community-level measures (relative abundance in mixture) and whole-plant (height, aboveground biomass, and light capture) and leaf-level traits (area, specific leaf area, and C:N ratio) to determine whether trait differences explained native-exotic differences in functional group diversity. Increases in species’ relative abundance in mixture were correlated with high biomass, height, and light capture in both native and exotic communities. However, increasing exotic species were all C4 grasses, whereas, increasing native species included forb, C3 grass and C4 grass species. Exotic C4 grasses had traits associated with relatively high resource capture: greater leaf area, specific leaf area, height, biomass, and light capture, but similar leaf C:N ratios compared to native C4grasses. Leaf C:N was consistently higher for native than exotic C3 species, implying that resource use efficiency was greater in natives than exotics. Our results suggest that functional diversity will differ between grasslands restored to native assemblages and those dominated by novel collections of exotic species, and that simple plant traits can help to explain diversity decline.