Abiotic stress, competition, and the distribution of the native annual grass Vulpia microstachys in a mosaic environment
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We analyzed how abiotic stress and competition interact to control the abundance and performance of the native annual grass Vulpia microstachys (Lonard and Gould; Poaceae) in a heterogeneous environment. At our study site, V. microstachys grows in nonserpentine grasslands dominated by tall invasive grasses, serpentine meadows dominated by short native forbs, and rocky serpentine slopes with a sparse native herb cover. We hypothesized that these three intermixed habitats acted as a gradient of increasing abiotic stress and decreasing aboveground competition, respectively. We further expected that the abundance and performance of V. microstachys would be highest in serpentine meadows, where neither aboveground competition nor abiotic stress were maximal. Soil and biotic variables showed roughly the expected patterns, but V. microstachys did not show the predicted peak in the middle of the gradient. Emergence, seedling survival, and abundance of V. microstachys were highest, and growth and seed production of survivors were lowest, on rocky serpentine slopes. Field experiments revealed that removal of competitors enhanced all demographic parameters, but only in the more productive habitats. An interaction between seed source and habitat, affecting emergence and survival, indicated ecotypic adaptation to the rocky serpentine slope habitat. We conclude that individual variation caused by local adaptation and phenotypic plasticity allows V. microstachys to survive in widely different habitats, none of which are optimal, resulting in considerable variation in demography.
KeywordsAnnual grass Competition Ecotypes Plasticity Serpentine
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