Disturbance has lasting effects on functional traits and diversity of grassland plant communities

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  • Background
    Localized disturbances within grasslands alter biological properties and may shift species composition. For example, rare species in established communities may become dominant in successional communities if they exhibit traits well-suited to disturbance conditions. Although the idea that plant species exhibit different trait ‘strategies’ is well established, it is unclear how ecological selection for specific traits may change as a function of disturbance. Further, there is little data available testing whether disturbances select for single trait-characters within communities (homogenization), or allow multiple trait-types to persist (diversification). We investigated how (a) traits and (b) functional diversity of post-disturbance gap communities compared to those in adjacent undisturbed grasslands, and (c) if altered functional diversity resulted in the homogenization or diversification of functional traits.

    Here we emulate the impacts of an extreme disturbance in a native grassland site. We measured plant community composition of twelve paired 50 × 50 cm plots (24 total) in Alberta, Canada. Each pair consisted of one undisturbed plot and one which had all plants terminated 2 years prior. We used species abundances and a local trait database to calculate community weighted means for maximum height, specific leaf area, specific root length, leaf nitrogen percent, and root nitrogen percent. To test the impacts of disturbance on community functional traits, we calculated functional diversity measures and compared them between disturbed and undisturbed communities.

    Within 2 years, species richness and evenness in disturbed communities had recovered and was equivalent to undisturbed communities. However, disturbed and undisturbed communities had distinct community compositions, resulting in lower functional divergence in disturbed plots. Further, disturbance was linked to increases in community-weighted mean trait values for resource-acquisitive traits, such as specific leaf area, and leaf and root nitrogen.

    Disturbance had lasting effects on the functional traits and diversity of communities, despite traditional biodiversity measures such as richness and evenness recovering within 2 years. The trait space of gap communities shifted compared to undisturbed communities such that gap communities were dominated by traits enhancing resource uptake and growth rates. Overall, these results show that short-term disturbance fundamentally changes the functional character of early-successional communities, even if they superficially appear recovered.

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    Article (Published)
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    Attribution 4.0 International
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  • Citation for previous publication
    • Ellen A Smith, Emily M Holden, Charlotte Brown, James F Cahill Jr (2022). Disturbance has lasting effects on functional traits and diversity of grassland plant communities. PeerJ 10:e13179.
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