Do water gradients produce patterns of responses to stress and competition similar to those induced by nutrient gradients?
We established a split-plot design in a calcareous grassland, with watering and fertilization as main plot treatments and competition as subplot treatment. We followed individual and competitive responses of transplants of the three potential dominant grass species: Bromus erectus, Brachypodium rupestre and Arrhenatherum elatius, in all plots during two growing seasons. Changes in natural relative abundances of the three grass species were also monitored.
The growth and the relative abundance of A. elatius were primarily stimulated by nutrient addition and those of B. rupestre by water addition, whereas B. erectus decreased in abundance and had a very low flexibility with enhanced resource supply. Competition intensity increased for all species with both watering and fertilization and the ranking in competitive responses did not change with treatments: A. elatius > B. rupestre > B. erectus.
Patterns of dominance were efficiently explained by stress tolerance abilities and competitive responses for dry and poor sites, and wet and rich sites for B. erectus and A. elatius respectively, whereas competitive responses were poor predictors of dominance for B. rupestre in wet and nutrient-poor sites. Further studies are needed to assess the potential role of other processes, such as increasing competitive effect on light with increasing age as well as interference, to explain the dominance of this conservative competitor type of species in wet and nutrient-poor sites.