Woody plant invasion at a semi-arid/arid transition zone: importance of ecosystem type to colonization and patch expansion


Corresponding author; E-mail debpeter@nmsu.edu


Question: How do patterns in colonization and patch expansion of an invasive woody plant (Larrea tridentata, Zygo-phyllaceae) differ between two grassland ecosystems at a biome transition zone?

Location: Semi-arid/arid transition zone in central New Mexico.

Methods: Frequency of occurrence, height, and surface area of saplings (n= 134) and patches of adult plants (n= 247) of the invasive shrub, L. tridentata, were measured within a mosaic of ecosystems dominated either by the Chihuahuan Desert species, Bouteloua eriopoda (Poaceae), or the shortgrass steppe species, B. gracilis, located within 1 km of the L. tridentata-dominated ecosystem. Distances between L. tridentata patches and patch area were used to estimate connectivity as a measure of propagule pressure. Sapling age (estimated from height using previously established relationships) and distance to the L. tridentata-dominated ecosystem was used to evaluate patterns in dispersal. Cover by species or functional group inside each L. tridentata patch was compared with surrounding vegetation to estimate changes in species composition with patch expansion.

Results: L. tridentata saplings (< 1%) and adult patches (15%) occurred less frequently in B. gracilis-dominated ecosystems than expected based on areal extent of this ecosystem type. Propagule pressure did not differ with distance from the core ecosystem dominated by L. tridentata. Evidence for both local and long-distance dispersal events was found. Similar relationships between number of plants and patch area in both grassland types indicate similar patterns in patch expansion. Cover of perennial forbs was higher and cover of dominant grasses was lower in L. tridentata patches compared with the surrounding vegetation for both ecosystem types.

Conclusions Spatial variation in L. tridentata saplings and patches at this biome transition zone is related to the different susceptibilities to invasion by two grassland ecosystems. The persistence of grasslands at this site despite region-wide expansion by L. tridentata may be related to the spatial distribution of B. gracilis-dominated ecosystems that resist or deter invasion by this woody plant.