Niche differences in phenology and rooting depth promote coexistence with a dominant C4 bunchgrass
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Spatial and temporal niche differentiation are potential mechanisms of plant species’ coexistence in many communities, including many grasslands. In a 6-year field experiment, a dominant prairie bunchgrass, Schizachyrium scoparium, excluded species sharing similar phenology and rooting depth, but coexisted with species differing in phenology and rooting depth. We used a series of experimental plots that differed in S. scoparium abundance to measure the effect of S. scoparium on abundances of other species and on soil nitrate concentrations across time and depth. Because we found that S. scoparium most strongly reduced soil nitrate levels at mid-season and at shallow depths, we hypothesized that at higher S. scoparium abundance, species with mid-season phenology and shallow roots would be excluded and that deep-rooted and early season species would be more likely to persist. As predicted, the proportional number and cover of species exploiting different niches than S. scoparium (early season and deep-rooted species) increased across the S. scoparium abundance gradient. This work provides novel empirical evidence for the factors that contribute to species coexistence in the field. Our study suggests that spatial and temporal niche differentiation promote species coexistence in these grasslands.