Environmental Heterogeneity, Animal Disturbances, Microsite Characteristics, and Seedling Establishment in a Quercus havardii Community



In restoration experiments it is imperative to consider the study of mechanisms of how species are maintained and preserved in a system. This paper reports on the results of a field experiment examining the growth and survival of seedlings of Schizachyrium scoparium, a dominant perennial bunchgrass member of the Quercus havardii (sand shinnery oak) communities of semiarid western Texas, on mounds of displaced soil produced by Sylvilagus auduboni (rabbit). The central question posed is: does environmental heterogeneity created by small mammals influence seedling survival and growth? The specific questions addressed are: (1) Does seedling survival, growth, and nutrient uptake vary when grown on mounds, off-mound soils, and artificially created mounds?; (2) What is the influence of the microbial and litter components of mound soils on seedling survival?; and (3) In communities where animal disturbances create environmental heterogeneity and may impact seedling establishment, is it possible to artificially create mounds that could serve a similar function? Results show that characteristics of mound soils increase seedling survival, shoot and root biomass, root length, number of tillers, mycorrhizal infection, and nutrient uptake more in plants grown on mounds than off mounds. Both the microbial and litter components of mound soils are essential components of this effect. Artificial mounds generated from soils associated with the herbaceous community were more similar to intact rabbit mounds than artificial mounds generated from soils associated with the oaks. The results indicate that rabbits produce rich patches (both nutrient and microbial) favorable to the growth of seedlings of the dominant bunchgrass, and point to the potential importance of rabbit disturbances in shaping the dynamics of this plant community. Thus, rabbit-generated disturbances produce environmental heterogeneity in the sand shinnery oak community, similar to that produced by harvester ants in this community as shown by an earlier study. Small animal activity that results in soil displacement, and influences soil characteristics, may indirectly contribute to the persistence of certain plant species within a community. Thus, disturbances may well operate in semiarid communities to produce nutrient and microbe rich microsites which may function to maintain diversity.