Flowering and floral visitation predict changes in community structure provided that mycorrhizas remain intact

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  • Pollination is critical for plant fitness and population dynamics, yet little attention is paid to the role of flowering and plant-pollinator interactions in structuring plant communities, including community responses to environmental change. Changes in arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi (AMF), nutrient abundances, and plant litter all affect plant access to different resources, and are known regulators of community structure. Each factor can also affect flowering and plant-pollinator interactions, potentially contributing to changes in community structure. To test whether AMF, nutrients, and litter influenced the relationship between pollination and community structure, we conducted a 5-yr field experiment applying fungicide, adding fertilizer, and removing plant litter in native grassland. We measured the distribution of flowers and floral visits among species in year three and linked these measures to changes in plant composition and species richness between years three and five. We hypothesized that an uneven distribution of flowers and visits among species would lead to greater community change, but that the treatments would disrupt this relationship by altering sexual allocation and recruitment. Consistent with our hypothesis, communities with uneven flower distributions exhibited greater changes in community composition and richness under ambient conditions. However, AMF suppression neutralized this relationship and regulated the other treatment effects, highlighting the potential importance of AMF for stabilizing recruitment dynamics. Combined, AMF suppression and nutrient addition caused species losses when few species flowered, likely by compounding stresses for those species. The treatment effects on the relationship between flowering and community composition were more nuanced, but were likely driven by increased competition and altered flowering among species. By contrast, community composition was more stable when visitation rates were uneven among species, irrespective of any treatments. This suggests that some species require high visitation rates to maintain their populations due to greater dependence on sexual reproduction. Combined, these results highlight the importance of flowering and floral visitation to the dynamics of grassland communities. They also suggest that altered recruitment dynamics is a major, yet understudied, mechanism by which environmental change affects communities. Consequently, understanding the effects of environmental change on plant communities will require study of both plant growth and sexual reproduction.

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    Copyright © 2018 by the Ecological Society of America. All rights reserved.
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    • Bennett, J. A., & Cahill, J. F. (2018). Flowering and floral visitation predict changes in community structure provided that mycorrhizas remain intact. Ecology, 99 (6), 1480-1489.
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