A test of priority effect persistence in semi-natural grasslands through the removal of plant functional groups during community assembly
Journal article, Peer reviewed
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Original versionBMC Ecology. 2016, 16 (22), . 10.1186/s12898-016-0077-9
Background:It is known that during plant community assembly, the early colonizing species can affect the estab-lishment, growth or reproductive success of later arriving species, often resulting in unpredictable assembly out-comes. These so called ‘priority effects’ have recently been hypothesized to work through niche-based processes, with early colonizing species either inhibiting the colonization of other species of the same niche through niche preemp-tion, or affecting the colonization success of species of different niches through niche modification. With most work on priority effects performed in controlled, short-term mesocosm experiments, we have little insight in how niche preemption and niche modification processes interact to shape the community composition of natural vegetations. In this study, we used a functional trait approach to identify potential niche-based priority effects in restored semi-natural grasslands. More specifically, we imposed two treatments that strongly altered the community’s functional trait composition; removal of all graminoid species and removal of all legume species, and we compared progressing assembly with unaltered control plots.Results:Our results showed that niche preemption effects can be, to a limited extent, relieved by species removal. This relief was observed for competitive grasses and herbs, but not for smaller grassland species. Although competi-tion effects acting within functional groups (niche preemption) occurred for graminoids, there were no such effects for legumes. The removal of legumes mainly affected functionally unrelated competitive species, likely through niche modification effects of nitrogen fixation. On the other hand, and contrary to our expectations, species removal was after 4years almost completely compensated by recolonization of the same species set, suggesting that priority effects persist after species removal, possibly through soil legacy effects.Conclusions:Our results show that both niche modification and niche preemption priority effects can act together in shaping community composition in a natural grassland system. Although small changes in species composition occurred, the removal of specific functional groups was almost completely compensated by recolonization of the same species. This suggests that once certain species get established, it might prove difficult to neutralize their effect on assembly outcome, since their imposed priority effects might act long after their removal.