Novel forests maintain ecosystem processes after the decline of native tree species

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Abstract

The positive relationship between species diversity (richness and evenness) and critical ecosystem functions, such as productivity, carbon storage, and nutrient cycling, is often used to predict the consequences of extinction. At regional scales, however, plant species richness is mostly increasing rather than decreasing because successful plant species introductions far outnumber extinctions. If these regional increases in richness lead to local increases in diversity, a reasonable prediction is that productivity, carbon storage, and nutrient cycling will increase following invasion, yet this prediction has rarely been tested empirically. We tested this prediction in novel forest communities dominated by introduced species (∼90% basal area) in lowland Hawaiian rain forests by comparing their functionality to that of native forests. We conducted our comparison along a natural gradient of increasing nitrogen availability, allowing for a more detailed examination of the role of plant functional trait differences (specifically, N2 fixation) in driving possible changes to ecosystem function. Hawaii is emblematic of regional patterns of species change; it has much higher regional plant richness than it did historically, due to >1000 plant species introductions and only ∼71 known plant extinctions, resulting in an ∼100% increase in richness. At local scales, we found that novel forests had significantly higher tree species richness and higher diversity of dominant tree species. We further found that aboveground biomass, productivity, nutrient turnover (as measured by soil-available and litter-cycled nitrogen and phosphorus), and belowground carbon storage either did not differ significantly or were significantly greater in novel relative to native forests. We found that the addition of introduced N2-fixing tree species on N-limited substrates had the strongest effect on ecosystem function, a pattern found by previous empirical tests. Our results support empirical predictions of the functional effects of diversity, but they also suggest basic ecosystem processes will continue even after dramatic losses of native species diversity if simple functional roles are provided by introduced species. Because large portions of the Earth's surface are undergoing similar transitions from native to novel ecosystems, our results are likely to be broadly applicable.

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