, Volume 9, Issue 1, pp 119-127
Date: 30 Jan 2006

Linking Community and Ecosystem Processes: The Role of Minor Species

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Abstract

The link between species and ecosystem functioning is a central issue in ecology. In natural plant communities, the dominant species determine most of the productivity-related processes but what is the function of minor species? A recent hypothesis suggests that after disturbance, minor species facilitate the recruitment and abundance of dominants during re-colonization, thus indirectly determining ecosystem function. We tested this hypothesis using a long-term dataset of annual plant communities in a semiarid shrubland by comparing plant density and biomass from plots in which all vegetation had been removed; plots from which only the dominant (the annual grass Stipa capensis) had been removed, and control plots. In the absence of vegetation, the dominant failed to re-establish during the following growing season. After being removed the dominant re-established similarly to the controls. An ant exclosure experiment excluded the possibility that this was due to seed predation. In an experiment with individual dispersal units of S. capensis, we demonstrated the mechanism by which minor species can control the dominant’s abundance. Minor species indirectly govern ecosystem processes by providing structures facilitating seed soil penetration and thus recruitment of the dominant.