, Volume 12, Issue 5, pp 1349-1361

Covariance between disturbance and soil resources dictates the invasibility of northern fescue prairies

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Abstract

Increasing environmental impacts of exotic organisms have refocused attention on the ability of diverse communities to resist biological invaders. Although resource availability, often related to natural and anthropogenic disturbances, appears central to the invasibility of biological communities, understanding the links between resources, diversity and invasibility is often confounded by the covariance among key variables. To test the hypothesis that community invasibility remains contingent on the type and intensity of disturbance and their impacts on plant community diversity and resource availability, we designed an experiment testing the invasibility of northern fescue prairies by smooth brome (Bromus inermis Leyss.), a Eurasian perennial grass, threatening the structure and function of prairie remnants throughout the Great Plains. Using soil disturbances and herbicide, we imposed treatments manipulating the diversity and resource availability of native prairies. Our observations demonstrate that the vulnerability of native prairies to exotic plant invasions remains contingent on resources. While the establishment of smooth brome seedlings increased with increasing disturbance, its impact depended on the availability of soil nitrogen. As a result, soil burial treatments, simulating disturbance by northern pocket gophers, provided poor recruitment areas for smooth brome, and their low levels of soil moisture and nitrogen, combined with the rapid recovery of the prairie community, compromised seedling establishment. Emphasizing the covariance of diversity and key environmental variables following disturbance, our findings illustrate the importance of disturbance type and intensity on community invasibility. Such a consideration is critical in the conservation and restoration of native prairie remnants throughout the Great Plains.