Plant Ecology

, Volume 212, Issue 10, pp 1663-1674

First online:

Rapid biodiversity declines in both ungrazed and intensely grazed exotic grasslands

  • Forest I. IsbellAffiliated withDepartment of Ecology, Evolution, and Organismal Biology, Iowa State UniversityDepartment of Biology, McGill University Email author 
  • , Brian J. WilseyAffiliated withDepartment of Ecology, Evolution, and Organismal Biology, Iowa State University

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Exotic-dominated ecosystems with low diversity are becoming increasingly common. It remains unclear, though, whether differences between native and exotic species (driver model), or changes in disturbances or resources (passenger model), allow exotics to become competitive dominants. In our field experiment, plant species origin (native or exotic), cattle grazing (ungrazed or intensely grazed once), and species composition treatments were fully crossed and randomly assigned to four-species mixtures and monocultures of grassland plants. We found that biodiversity declined more rapidly in exotic than in native species mixtures, regardless of our grazing disturbance treatment. Early declines in species evenness (i.e., increases in dominance) led to subsequent declines in species richness (i.e., local extinctions) in exotic mixtures. Specifically, Simpson’s diversity was 29% lower after 1 year, and species richness was 15% lower after 3 years, in exotic than in native mixtures. These rapid biodiversity declines in exotic mixtures were partly explained by decreased complementarity (i.e., niche partitioning and facilitation), presumably because exotic species lack the coevolutionary history that can lead to complementarity and coexistence in native communities. Thus, our results suggest that exotic species can drive biodiversity declines in the presence or absence of a grazing disturbance, partly because exotic species interactions differ from native species interactions. This implies that restoring plant biodiversity in grasslands may require removal of exotic species, in addition to disturbance management.


Land use change Novel ecosystems Coexistence Complementarity Conservation