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Savanna plant communities are highly diverse, characterized by an open-canopy structure with rich herbaceous diversity, and maintained by frequent low-intensity fire and grazing. Due to habitat loss and fragmentation, savannas are globally threatened, with less than 1% of former oak savanna land cover found in the Midwestern United States remaining. In remnant oak savannas, loss of fire and grazing has led to woody encroachment and canopy closure over the past century with cascading consequences for the taxonomic composition. Whether these taxonomic changes can be broadly predicted using species functional traits (morpho-physio-phenological characteristics that impact the fitness of a species) is a key question. We ask whether the impacts of woody encroachment on herbaceous species can be predicted from species’ abilities to persist (avoid extinction) and disperse (colonize new areas). Specifically, we pair persistence traits (e.g., clonality, belowground storage) and dispersal traits (e.g., seed mass, dispersal mode, flowering height) with a rare 60-year dataset from oak savannas in Wisconsin, USA to understand how the representation of these traits has changed in the herbaceous community over time. Over 60 years, change in species composition was explained both by dispersal abilities and persistence traits; small-seeded species reliant on unassisted dispersal and moderately clonal species experienced the greatest losses. These changes in functional composition are likely due to increased woody encroachment, which may impede propagule production and movement. Restoration efforts need to prioritize species that are dispersal limited and those that create fine fuels, which aid the persistence of fire-maintained open habitat savannas.more » « lessFree, publicly-accessible full text available April 1, 2024
Woody encroachment into grasslands is a worldwide phenomenon partially influenced by climate change, including extreme weather events.
Larrea tridentatais a common shrub throughout the warm deserts of North America that has encroached into grasslands over the past 150 years. Physiological measurements suggest that the northern distribution of L. tridentatais limited by cold temperatures; thus extreme winter events may slow or reverse shrub expansion. We tested this limitation by measuring the response of individual L. tridentatashrubs to an extreme winter cold (−31°C) event to assess shrub mortality and rate of recovery of surviving shrubs. Location
Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge, Socorro County, New Mexico, USA.
Canopy dieback and recovery following an extreme cold event were measured for 869 permanently marked individual
L. tridentatashrubs in grass–shrub ecotone and shrubland sites. Individual shrubs were monitored for amount of canopy dieback, rate of recovery, and seed set for three growing seasons after the freeze event. Results
Shrubs rapidly suffered a nearly complete loss of canopy leaf area across all sites. Although canopy loss was high, mortality was low and 99% of shrubs resprouted during the first growing season after the freeze event. Regrowth rates were similar within ecotone and shrubland sites, even when damage by frost was larger in the latter. After three years of recovery,
L. tridentatacanopies had regrown on average 23–83% of the original pre‐freeze canopy sizes across the sites. Conclusions
We conclude that isolated extreme cold events may temporarily decrease shrubland biomass but they do not slow or reverse shrub expansion. These events are less likely to occur in the future as regional temperatures increase under climate change.
Global environmental change is altering temperature, precipitation patterns, resource availability, and disturbance regimes. Theory predicts that ecological presses will interact with pulse events to alter ecosystem structure and function. In 2006, we established a long‐term, multifactor global change experiment to determine the interactive effects of nighttime warming, increased atmospheric nitrogen (N) deposition, and increased winter precipitation on plant community structure and aboveground net primary production (
ANPP) in a northern Chihuahuan Desert grassland. In 2009, a lightning‐caused wildfire burned through the experiment. Here, we report on the interactive effects of these global change drivers on pre‐ and postfire grassland community structure and ANPP. Our nighttime warming treatment increased winter nighttime air temperatures by an average of 1.1 °C and summer nighttime air temperature by 1.5 °C. Soil N availability was 2.5 times higher in fertilized compared with control plots. Average soil volumetric water content ( VWC) in winter was slightly but significantly higher (13.0% vs. 11.0%) in plots receiving added winter rain relative to controls, and VWCwas slightly higher in warmed (14.5%) compared with control (13.5%) plots during the growing season even though surface soil temperatures were significantly higher in warmed plots. Despite these significant treatment effects, ANPPand plant community structure were highly resistant to these global change drivers prior to the fire. Burning reduced the cover of the dominant grasses by more than 75%. Following the fire, forb species richness and biomass increased significantly, particularly in warmed, fertilized plots that received additional winter precipitation. Thus, although unburned grassland showed little initial response to multiple ecological presses, our results demonstrate how a single pulse disturbance can interact with chronic alterations in resource availability to increase ecosystem sensitivity to multiple drivers of global environmental change.