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Keywords:

  • Above-ground productivity;
  • complementary interactions;
  • dominant species;
  • grassland;
  • rare species loss;
  • subordinate species;
  • tallgrass prairie

Abstract

Loss of species caused by widespread stressors, such as drought and fragmentation, is likely to be non-random depending on species abundance in the community. We experimentally reduced the number of rare and uncommon plant species while independently reducing only the abundance of dominant grass species in intact, native grassland. This allowed us to simulate a non-random pattern of species loss, based on species abundances, from communities shaped by natural ecological interactions and characterized by uneven species abundance distributions. Over two growing seasons, total above-ground net primary productivity (ANPP) declined with reductions in abundance of the dominant species but was unaffected by a threefold decline in richness of less common species. In contrast, productivity of the remaining rare and uncommon species decreased with declining richness, in part due to loss of complementary interactions among these species. However, increased production of the dominant grasses offset the negative effects of species loss. We conclude that the dominant species, as controllers of ecosystem function, can provide short-term resistance to reductions in ecosystem function when species loss is nonrandom. However, the concurrent loss of complementary interactions among rare and uncommon species, the most diverse component of communities, may contribute to additional species loss and portends erosion of ecosystem function in the long term.