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Plant functional traits improve diversity-based predictions of temporal stability of grassland productivity

Authors

  • H. Wayne Polley,

    1. Grassland, Soil and Water Research Laboratory, US Dept of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service, 808 East Blackland Road, Temple, TX 76502, USA.
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  • Forest I. Isbell,

    1. Grassland, Soil and Water Research Laboratory, US Dept of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service, 808 East Blackland Road, Temple, TX 76502, USA.
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  • Brian J. Wilsey

    1. Grassland, Soil and Water Research Laboratory, US Dept of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service, 808 East Blackland Road, Temple, TX 76502, USA.
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H. W. Polley, Grassland, Soil and Water Research Laboratory, US Dept of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service, 808 East Blackland Road, Temple, TX 76502, USA. E-mail: wayne.polley@ars.usda.gov

Abstract

Synthesis

The temporal stability of plant production is greater in communities with high than low species richness, but stability also may depend on species abundances and growth-related traits. Annual precipitation varied by greater than a factor of three over 11 years in central Texas, USA leading to large variation in production. Stability was greatest in communities that were not dominated by few species and in which dominant species rooted shallowly, had dense leaves, or responded to the wettest year with a minimal increase in production. Stability may depend as much on species abundances and functional traits as on species richness alone.

Aboveground net primary productivity (ANPP) varies in response to temporal fluctuations in weather. Temporal stability of community ANPP may be increased by increasing plant species richness, but stability often varies at a given richness level implying a dependence on abundances and functional properties of member species. We measured stability in ANPP during 11 years in field plots (Texas, USA) in which we varied the richness and relative abundances of perennial grassland species at planting. We sought to identify species abundance patterns and functional traits linked to the acquisition and processing of essential resources that could be used to improve richness-based predictions of community stability. We postulated that community stability would correlate with abundance-weighted indices of traits that influence plant responses to environmental variation. Annual precipitation varied by a factor of three leading to large inter-annual variation in ANPP. Regression functions with planted and realized richness (species with > 1% of community ANPP during the final four years) explained 32% and 25% of the variance in stability, respectively. Regression models that included richness plus the fraction of community ANPP produced by the two most abundant species in combination with abundance-weighted values of either the fraction of sampled root biomass at 20–45 cm depth, leaf dry matter content (LDMC), or response to greater-than-average precipitation of plants grown in monocultures explained 58–69% (planted richness) and 58–64% (realized richness) of the variance in stability. Stability was greatest in communities that were not strongly dominated by only two species and in which plants rooted shallowly, had high values of LDMC, or responded to the wettest year with a minimal increase in ANPP. Our results indicate that the temporal stability of grassland ANPP may depend as much on species abundances and functional traits linked to plant responses to precipitation variability as on species richness alone.

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