COMMUNITY- AND ECOSYSTEM-LEVEL CHANGES IN A SPECIES-RICH TALLGRASS PRAIRIE RESTORATION

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Abstract

Changes in the plant community and ecosystem properties that follow the conversion of agriculture to restored tallgrass prairies are poorly understood. Beginning in 1995, we established a species-rich, restored prairie chronosequence where ∼3 ha of agricultural land have been converted to tallgrass prairie each year. Our goals were to examine differences in ecosystem properties between these restored prairies and adjacent agricultural fields and to determine changes in, and potential interactions between, the plant community and ecosystem properties that occur over time in the restored prairies. During the summers of 2000–2002, we examined species cover, soil C and N, potential net C and N mineralization, litter mass, soil texture, and bulk density across the 6- to 8-year-old prairie chronosequence and adjacent agricultural fields in southern Minnesota. We also established experimentally fertilized, watered, and control plots in the prairie chronosequence to examine the degree of nitrogen limitation on aboveground and belowground net primary production (ANPP and BNPP). Large shifts in functional diversity occurred within three growing seasons. First-year prairies were dominated by annuals and biennials. By the second growing season, perennial native composites had become dominant, followed by a significant shift to warm-season C4 grasses in prairies ≥3 yr old. Ecosystem properties that changed with the rise of C4 grasses included increased BNPP, litter mass, and C mineralization rates and decreased N mineralization rates. ANPP increased significantly with N fertilization but did not vary between young and old prairies with dramatically different plant community composition. Total soil C and N were not significantly different between prairie and agricultural soils in the depths examined (0–10, 10–20, 20–35, 35–50, 50–65 cm). We compared the results from our species-rich prairie restoration to published data on ecosystem function in other restored grasslands, such as Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and old-field successional sites. Results suggest that rapid changes in functional diversity can have large impacts on ecosystem-level properties, causing community- and system-level dynamics in species-rich prairie restorations to converge with those from low-diversity managed grasslands.

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