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  1. Abstract Aims

    Grassland-to-shrubland transition is a common form of land degradation in drylands worldwide. It is often attributed to changes in disturbance regimes, particularly overgrazing. A myriad of direct and indirect effects (e.g., accelerated soil erosion) of grazing may favor shrubs over grasses, but their relative importance is unclear. We tested the hypothesis that topsoil “winnowing” by wind erosion would differentially affect grass and shrub seedling establishment to promote shrub recruitment over that of grass.

    Methods

    We monitored germination and seedling growth of contrasting perennial grass (Bouteloua eriopoda,Sporobolus airoides, andAristida purpurea) and shrub (Prosopis glandulosa,Atriplex canescens, andLarrea tridentata) functional groups on field-collected non-winnowed and winnowed soils under well-watered greenhouse conditions.

    Results

    Non-winnowed soils were finer-textured and had higher nutrient contents than winnowed soils, but based on desorption curves, winnowed soils had more plant-available moisture. Contrary to expectations, seed germination and seedling growth on winnowed and non-winnowed soils were comparable within a given species. The N2-fixing deciduous shrubP. glandulosawas first to emerge and complete germination, and had the greatest biomass accumulation of all species.

    Conclusions

    Germination and early seedling growth of grasses and shrubs on winnowed soils were not adversely nor differentially affected comparing with that observed on non-winnowed soils under well-watered greenhouse conditions. Early germination and rapid growth may giveP. glandulosaa competitive advantage over grasses and other shrub species at the establishment stage in grazed grasslands. Field establishment experiments are needed to confirm our findings in these controlled environment trials.

     
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  2. In this dataset, we report ecophysiological variables of contrasting perennial grass (Bouteloua eriopoda, Sporobolus airoides, and Aristida purpurea) and shrub (Prosopis glandulosa, Atriplex canescens, and Larrea tridentata) functional groups before and after a series of simulated sandblasting events with various intensities and frequencies. We hypothesized that grass species are more susceptible to the resulting "sandblasting" (i.e., abrasive damage by wind-blown particulates) than shrubs, thus contributing to the shift from grass to shrub dominance. To test this, we conducted a wind tunnel experiment at the USDA Jornada Experimental Range in 2018 and 2019 growing seasons. Potted plants were subjected to different levels of sandblasting in a novel portable wind tunnel, and plants’ ecophysiological responses including leaf gas exchange and nighttime leaf stomatal conductance were quantified. All tested plants were then grown in benign greenhouse conditions to investigate plant recovery post sandblasting. This dataset contains data about plant biomass and height, leaf chlorophyll content, leaf gas exchange, stomatal conductance, and water use efficiency (WUE) under the experimental treatments above. This study is complete. 
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  3. Abstract

    Transitions from grass to woody plant dominance, widely reported in arid systems, are typically attributed to changes in disturbance regimes in combination with abiotic feedbacks, whereas biotic mechanisms such as competition and facilitation are often overlooked. Yet, research in semi‐arid and subhumid savannas indicates that biotic interactions are important drivers in systems at risk for state transition. We sought to bridge this divide by experimentally manipulating grass‐on‐shrub and shrub‐on‐shrub interactions in early and late stages of grassland–shrubland state transition, respectively, and to assess the extent to which these interactions might influence arid land state transition dynamics.

    TargetProsopis glandulosashrubs had surrounding grasses or conspecific neighbours left intact or killed with foliar herbicide, and metrics of plant performance were monitored over multiple years for shrubs with and without grass or shrub neighbours.

    Productivity of small shrubs was enhanced by grass removal in years with above‐average precipitation, a result not evident in larger shrubs or during dry years. Proxy evidence based on nearest neighbour metrics suggested shrub–shrub competition was at play, but our experimental manipulations revealed no such influence.

    Competition from grasses appears to attenuate the rate at which shrubs achieve the size necessary to modify the physical environment in self‐reinforcing ways, but only during the early stages of shrub encroachment. Our results further suggest that at late stages of grassland‐to‐shrubland state transitions, shrub–shrub competition will not slow the rate of shrub expansion, and suggest that maximum shrub cover is regulated by something other than density‐dependent mechanisms. We conclude that grass effects on shrubs should be included in assessments of desert grassland state transition probabilities and rates, and that desertification models in arid ecosystems that traditionally focus on disturbance and abiotic feedbacks should be broadened to incorporate spatial and temporal variations in competitive effects.

    Aplain language summaryis available for this article.

     
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