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Keywords:

  • diversity;
  • Hieracium;
  • species richness;
  • vegetation change

Abstract

Understanding how plant communities respond to plant invasions is important both for understanding community structure and for predicting future ecosystem change. In a system undergoing intense plant invasion for 25 years, we investigated patterns of community change at a regional scale. Specifically, we sought to quantify how tussock grassland plant community structure had changed and whether changes were related to increases in plant invasion. Frequency data for all vascular plants were recorded on 124, permanent transects in tussock grasslands across the lower eastern South Island of New Zealand measured three times over a period of 25 years. Multivariate analyses of species richness were used to describe spatial and temporal patterns in the vegetation. Linear mixed-effects models were used to relate temporal changes in community structure to the level and rate of invasion of three dominant invasive species in the genus Hieracium while accounting for relationships with other biotic and abiotic variables. There was a strong compositional gradient from exotic- to native-dominated plant communities that correlated with increasing elevation. Over the 25 years, small-scale species richness significantly decreased and then increased again; however, these changes differed in different plant communities. Exotic species frequency consistently increased on some transects and consistently declined on others. Species richness changes were correlated with the level of Hieracium invasion and abiotic factors, although the relationship with Hieracium changed from negative to positive over time. Compositional changes were not related to measured predictors. Our results suggest that observed broad-scale fluctuations in species richness and community composition dynamics were not driven by Hieracium invasion. Given the relatively minor changes in community composition over time, we conclude that there is no evidence for widespread degradation of these grasslands over the last 25 years. However, because of continuing weed invasion, particularly at lower elevations, impacts may emerge in the longer term.