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Keywords:

  • grassland;
  • Panicum virgatum;
  • restoration;
  • soil heterogeneity;
  • Switchgrass;
  • tallgrass prairie

Abstract

Spatial heterogeneity of resources can influence plant community composition and diversity in natural communities. We manipulated soil depth (two levels) and nutrient availability (three levels) to create four heterogeneity treatments (no heterogeneity, depth heterogeneity, nutrient heterogeneity, and depth + nutrient heterogeneity) replicated in an agricultural field seeded to native prairie species. Our objective was to determine whether resource heterogeneity influences species diversity and the trajectory of community development during grassland restoration. The treatments significantly increased heterogeneity of available inorganic nitrogen (N), soil water content, and light penetration. Plant diversity was indirectly related to resource heterogeneity through positive relationships with variability in productivity and cover established by the belowground manipulations. Diversity was inversely correlated with the average cover of the dominant grass, Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), which increased over time in all heterogeneity treatments and resulted in community convergence among the heterogeneity treatments over time. The success of this cultivar across the wide range of resource availability was attributed to net photosynthesis rates equivalent to or higher than those of the native prairie plants in the presence of lower foliar N content. Our results suggest that resource heterogeneity alone may not increase diversity in restorations where a dominant species can successfully establish across the range of resource availability. This is consistent with theory regarding the role of ecological filters on community assembly in that the establishment of one species best adapted for the physical and biological conditions can play an inordinately important role in determining community structure.