Relative importance of suppression-based and tolerance-based competition in an invaded oak savanna



  • 1Invasive species dominate many ecosystems but the competitive strategies underlying this dominance are unclear. Are invasive species generalist competitors, or do they only thrive in certain environments? Do they occur mainly post-disturbance or can they persist throughout succession?
  • 2We tested the relative importance of resource acquisition (competitive suppression ability) and the ability to tolerate reduced resource levels (competitive tolerance ability) among four C3 perennial grass species in an invaded oak savanna. Two species (Poa pratensis and Dactylis glomerata) are exotic invaders and are thought to have replaced the two native species (Bromus carinatus and Elymus glaucus) as dominants.
  • 3Using glasshouse and field experiments we tested whether the two strategies were maintained with changing resource levels and successional conditions, and their relative roles in explaining exotic dominance.
  • 4The relative importance of suppression- and tolerance-based competition shifted with neighbour density, burning and planting order. Further, the relative importance of particular plant traits changed depending on the imposed conditions, and the exotic dominants were only competitively superior under certain circumstances.
  • 5Competitive suppression ability was maintained with changing resource levels but was confined to post-disturbance conditions. When planting of neighbours was delayed, the early establishing targets were dominant regardless of species, fertility and neighbour density.
  • 6Competitive tolerance ability determined long-term patterns of relative abundance and coexistence, but only under the current field conditions of low fertility and limited disturbance. Alteration of these conditions changed the relative abundance of the four grasses, and would probably reconfigure species patterns in the oak savanna community generally.
  • 7Exotic dominance is presently determined by tolerance-based competitive traits interacting with the long-term absence of disturbance. Dominance is therefore contingent on the interaction of competitive strategies, resource availability and disturbance history rather than any one factor alone.
  • 8Exotic flora dominate all stages of succession in this savanna because there exists both early (suppression) and late (tolerance) successional specialists. The identity of the dominant changes with succession based on the competitive strategy it employs. This result highlights the importance of examining the historical context of invaded communities and tracking their successional status over time.