Disturbance persistence in managed grasslands: shifts in aboveground community structure and the weed seed bank
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- Renne, I.J. & Tracy, B.F. Plant Ecol (2007) 190: 71. doi:10.1007/s11258-006-9191-7
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The length of time and form in which disturbances persist in systems depends on the intensity and frequency of disturbance and on the abilities of resident species to recover from such events. In grazed grasslands, trampling by large mammalian herbivores can periodically facilitate weed establishment by exposing patches of bare ground but whether an intense soil disturbance event results in a temporary increase in weed abundance or a persistent weed problem remains unclear. In May 2002, cattle trampling following heavy rain caused severe damage to nine-month old, rotationally grazed, cool-season pastures (Midwest USA). In September 2002, we compared the aboveground composition of paddocks (i.e., fenced pasture sections) that were heavily disturbed to those that received no damage. Relative to undisturbed paddocks, forage species relative cover was 17% lower in disturbed paddocks, and weed species and bare ground relative cover was 61% and 100% higher, respectively. By September 2004, paddock types did not differ in all aboveground community components. However, the abundance and species richness of weed seeds in the soil seed bank averaged respectively 82% and 30% higher in disturbed paddocks between 2003 and 2004. These findings indicate that a spatially extensive, intense soil disturbance event may soon become undetectable in components of aboveground pasture structure but can persist as an augmented weed seed bank. Because of high weed seed bank longevity, disturbances to formerly disturbed pastures would likely result in higher weed recruitment, with more species represented, than in those which lack previous disturbance. Disturbance history may thus be a useful predictor of weed community composition following subsequent disturbance. Based on empirical data supporting this proposition, we recommend that grassland managers explicitly incorporate disturbance history into dynamic management planning and do not rely exclusively on aboveground characters to evaluate the invasion status or colonization potential of an area by undesirable plants. We emphasize that the ecological legacies of past soil disturbance events cannot only influence the contemporary patterns and processes of grasslands, but importantly, affect their compositional trajectories following subsequent perturbation.