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Keywords:

  • Andropogon gerardii;
  • arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi;
  • competition;
  • plant–soil feedback;
  • Schizachyrium scoparium;
  • serpentine grassland;
  • Sorghastrum nutans

Abstract

Plants can alter biotic and abiotic soil characteristics in ways that feedback to change the performance of that same plant species relative to co-occurring plants. Most evidence for this plant–soil feedback comes from greenhouse studies of potted plants, and consequently, little is known about the importance of feedback in relation to other biological processes known to structure plant communities, such as plant–plant competition. In a field experiment with three C4 grasses, negative feedback was expressed through reduced survival and shoot biomass when seedlings were planted within existing clumps of conspecifics compared with clumps of heterospecifics. However, the combined effects of feedback and competition were species-specific. Only Andropogon gerardii exhibited feedback when competition with the clumps was allowed. For Sorghastrum nutans, strong interspecific competition eliminated the feedback expressed in the absence of competition, and Schizachyrium scoparium showed no feedback at all. That arbuscular mycorrhizal (AM) fungi may play a role in the feedback was indicated by higher AM root colonization with conspecific plant neighbours. We suggest that feedback and competition should not be viewed as entirely separate processes and that their importance in structuring plant communities cannot be judged in isolation from each other.