1. The dominance of invasive species is often assumed to reflect their competitive superiority over displaced native species. However, invasive species may be abundant because of their greater tolerance to anthropogenic impacts accompanying their introduction. Thus, invasive species can either be the drivers or passengers of change.
2. We distinguish between these two possibilities in California grasslands currently dominated by Mediterranean annuals (exotics) and subjected to livestock grazing since European settlement. We focused on native annual grasses and forbs, an understudied species-rich component of the California flora, and Mediterranean annual grasses, currently dominant and among the first non-native plants introduced to the area.
3. We established a field experiment with fenced and unfenced blocks in a cattle pasture. We measured concentrations of limiting resources (nitrogen, phosphorus, light and soil moisture) in monoculture plots as an index of competitive ability (i.e. R*). We then quantified grazing impacts on biomass and seed production in grazed vs. ungrazed monoculture plots. Finally, we measured biomass and seed production of each species competing in mixture plots, in the presence and absence of grazers.
4. We found that native and exotic species did not differ in R* indices of competitive ability, i.e. concentrations of limiting resources in ungrazed native monoculture plots did not differ from concentrations in ungrazed exotic monoculture plots. By contrast, exotic annuals suffered less from grazing than native annuals, perhaps reflecting their longer evolutionary history with cattle grazing. Consistent with these results, native and exotic annuals were equally abundant in ungrazed mixtures, but exotic species overwhelmingly dominated grazed mixtures.
5. Species able to draw down nitrogen and light to lower levels in monocultures (i.e. those with lower R* values) dominated biomass and seeds in mixed plots without grazers. However, R* did not predict the relative abundance of species in grazed plots. Moreover, the relative abundance of species in mixtures did not correlate with grazing impacts on their monocultures, implying that grazing alters inter-specific competitive dynamics.
6. Synthesis. We demonstrate that the displacement of native annuals by Mediterranean annual grasses in California may largely have been driven by cattle grazing.