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Herbivory tolerance of Agropyron smithii populations with different grazing histories

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The effects of defoliation on growth and nitrogen (N) nutrition were examined in populations of Agropyron smithii (western wheatgrass) collected from a heavily grazed black-tailed prairie dog (Cynomys ludovicianus) colony (ON-colony) and a nearby lightly grazed, uncolonized area (OFF-colony). Defoliated and nondefoliated plants were grown at low soil N availability with similar sized defoliated individuals of A. smithii from a grazing-exclosure population as a common competitor. Sequential harvests were made over 24 days following defoliation. Growth analysis plus biomass and N yield and distribution data were used to identify features which may contribute to plant defoliation tolerance. Defoliation reduced total production 34% across populations. Defoliated plants produced as much new blade tissue, but only 67% as much new root biomass as did nondefoliated controls. Plants from prairie dog colonies accumulated biomass at a faster relative rate than did plants from uncolonized sites, in part, because of a 250% greater mean relative growth rate of blades and more than 200% greater rate of biomass production per unit blade biomass. Total N accumulation was significantly greater in defoliated ON- than OFF-colony individuals. The mean relative accumulation rate of N was increased by defoliation in ON-colony plants, but reduced by defoliation in OFF-colony plants. The mean rate of N accumulation per unit root biomass was more than 300% greater in the ON- than OFF-colony population. Colony plants initially had a greater proportion of biomass and N remaining after defoliation in roots. Initial differences between populations in the distribution of biomass and N were eliminated as colony plants concentrated 24-day accumulation of biomass and N in aboveground structures. The data suggest that the combination of growth, N nutrition, and biomass and N distribution characteristics of the colony population likely confer a high rate of resource capture on heavily grazed prairie dog colonies.

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Correspondence to H. W. Polley.

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Polley, H.W., Detling, J.K. Herbivory tolerance of Agropyron smithii populations with different grazing histories. Oecologia 77, 261–267 (1988). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00379196

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Key words

  • Biomass production
  • Defoliation
  • Grasslands
  • Nitrogen accumulation
  • Prairie dog colony