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Keywords:

  • calcareous grassland;
  • genetic diversity;
  • microcosms;
  • model communities;
  • species diversity

Summary

  • 1
    Established individuals removed at random from populations of 11 long-lived herbaceous species coexisting in a local area of ancient limestone pasture at Cressbrookdale in North Derbyshire were subjected to clonal propagation to produce stocks of genetically identical individuals sufficient to create 36 model communities identical in species composition but widely contrasted in genetic diversity.
  • 2
    Three levels of genetic diversity were imposed. In one treatment, all individuals of each species were genetically unique. The second contained four randomly selected genotypes of each species. In the third, there was no genetic diversity in any of the species but each community contained a unique combination of genotypes.
  • 3
    Over a period of 5 years the communities were allowed to develop in microcosms containing natural rendzina soil and exposed to a standardized regime of simulated grazing and trampling. The treatments were maintained by the removal of flowers, immature seed-heads and seedlings originating from the seed-bank and seed rain. Point quadrat surveys were used to monitor changes in species composition and diversity in the three experimental treatments.
  • 4
    During the experiment a distinction rapidly developed between five canopy dominants and five subordinates, a process that caused the vegetation structure to closely resemble that occurring at Cressbrookdale.
  • 5
    A gradual loss of species diversity occurred in all three treatments but by the end of the fifth growing season species diversity was higher in the most genetically diverse communities.
  • 6
    Ordination of the 36 communities at intervals over a 5-year period revealed a gradual convergence in the species composition of the 4-genotype and 16-genotype communities and this effect was more strongly developed in the latter. A comparable process was not observed in the 1-genotype communities, suggesting that interaction between particular genotypes of different species in local neighbourhoods may be an essential part of the mechanism that determines the predictable composition of a mature pasture community.
  • 7
    It is concluded that, under the conditions of this experiment, genetic diversity within component species reduced the rate at which species diversity declined. The relative importance in this effect of factors such as greater disease resistance and moderated competitive interactions remains uncertain.