Annual plant community responses to density of small-scale soil disturbances in the Negev Desert of Israel
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We investigated whether plant diversity and productivity in small-scale soil disturbances, which is known to be higher than in undisturbed soil, decreases as the density of the disturbances increases. We studied this in an experiment with soil diggings (15 cm diameter and 15 cm depth) dug at a range of densities, on a north- and a south-facing slope of a watershed in the central Negev Desert of Israel. The diggings were similar to the commonly occurring pits made by porcupines (Hystrix indica) as they forage for below-ground plant parts. We used four levels of digging density, within the naturally occurring range in the region, represented by a rectangular plot with rows of diggings dug at four distances between diggings. The plots were laid out in a blocked design with three replications on both slopes, with each block containing all four levels of digging density. In the spring of 1992, 1994 and 1995 we measured plant density, species richness and plant productivity in the diggings, and in adjacent equal-sized undisturbed control areas (“soil matrix”) and on the mounds made by the removed excess soil. Plant density, species richness and productivity of annual plants were higher in the diggings than in the undisturbed matrix, while these responses were very low on the mounds. Plant density, species richness and productivity in the diggings, but not in the matrix or mounds, decreased as digging density increased. This effect varied slightly with location within a watershed and with annual rainfall. The density of seeds captured in the diggings from outside the digging during the 1995 dispersal season decreased with increasing digging density, but only on one of the slopes. At the highest digging density, plant density and species number in the diggings did not decrease down the slope, as expected if interference between diggings in runoff water capture were the cause of the digging density effect. There was a weak decrease in biomass production in 1994–1995 down the slope. We used a simple mathematical model to estimate whether the distribution of rainfall intensities that occurred during the winter of 1994–1995 could result in differences between digging densities in the amount of water captured by the diggings, and whether this could explain the observed effect of digging density. The model showed that there were four events during which less water was captured by the diggings at high digging densities, except in the topmost row of diggings. Soil moisture measurements, however, showed very little difference between diggings at different digging densities. We explain our findings as the result of the interaction between the properties of the disturbance patch with its surroundings, as the diggings capture resources in the form of runoff water, and seeds moved primarily by wind. The additional resources and seeds captured in diggings increase plant density, species richness and productivity relative to the undisturbed matrix. However, the contrast in plant responses between the disturbed patches and undisturbed soil diminishes at higher digging densities. We explain this as interference among diggings at close proximity. As we did not detect a decrease in plant responses down the slopes, we conclude that interference is due to interception of the wind-driven, non-directional flow of seeds. Interception of the down-slope flow of runoff water by upslope diggings is insufficient to affect plant density, determined at the beginning of the season. Later in the season, runoff interception may become important for biomass production.
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