J Plant Ecol ›› 2012, Vol. 5 ›› Issue (3): 260-269.doi: 10.1093/jpe/rtr027

• Research Articles • Previous Articles     Next Articles

Recruitment in species-rich grasslands: the effects of functional traits and propagule pressure

Mathias Öster and Ove Eriksson*   

  1. Department of Botany, Stockholm University, SE-106 91 Stockholm, Sweden
  • Received:2011-03-29 Accepted:2011-07-30 Online:2011-09-02 Published:2012-07-09
  • Contact: Eriksson, Ove E-mail:ove.eriksson@botan.su.se

Abstract: Aims The assembly of plant communities is a complex process which combines impacts from the species pool, dispersal and propagule pressure, niche requirements of colonizing species and the niche structure of the community. Recent theory development has incorporated all these aspects, e.g. in 'stochastic niche theory'. We investigated recruitment into a species-rich grassland community, using an experimental approach where we manipulated the trait composition of the community and examined the success of colonizing species entering with various propagule pressure. Specifically, we examined two predictions: (i) colonization success increases with increasing difference between traits of the colonizing species and the trait profile of the community and (ii) colonization success increases with increasing propagule pressure.
Methods The examined communities were species-rich semi-natural grasslands located in southern Sweden. After a careful documentation of the composition of the plant communities at the experimental sites, we manipulated the trait profile of species-rich grassland plots based on the plant functional trait specific leaf area (SLA), which is correlated with several key life history functions. In addition to SLA, seed mass was also used to describe the trait profile of grassland plots. Seeds of 12 plant species from the regional species pool, varying in SLA and seed mass, were sown into plots using four different levels of propagule pressure. Recruitment was examined after 1 year. We also planted juvenile 'plug plants' of the same species which allowed us to examine survivorship and growth beyond the seedling stage.
Important findings Overall we found very limited evidence for relationships between the traits of the colonizing species and the trait profile of the community and for recruitment after sowing these relationships were contrary to the prediction. Survival of plug plants after two seasons of growth was high irrespective of the trait profile of the community, but growth of plug plants was affected by the trait profile of the surrounding community. For four of the species there was a positive effect of increased propagule pressure on colonization. The results suggest that species assembly in species-rich grasslands is not strongly dependent on the niche structure of the community. However, the finding that colonization of only a third of the species responded positively to increased propagule pressure indicates that there might be niche-related effects that were not captured by our treatments. Overall, our results indicate that the factors determining colonization in this community are species specific. Some species are able to colonize irrespective of niche relationships, provided that the propagule pressure is sufficiently high to overcome stochastic mortality after seed arrival. For other species, however, we cannot exclude that niche assembly occurred, but we failed to identify the relevant niche factor.

Key words: assembly rules, recruitment limitation, seed size, semi-natural grassland, SLA

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