Original Articles: Plant Attribute Diversity, Resilience, and Ecosystem Function: The Nature and Significance of Dominant and Minor Species
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This study tested an hypothesis concerning patterns in species abundance in ecological communities. Why do the majority of species occur in low abundance, with just a few making up the bulk of the biomass? We propose that many of the minor species are analogues of the dominants in terms of the ecosystem functions they perform, but differ in terms of their capabilities to respond to environmental stresses and disturbance. They thereby confer resilience on the community with respect to ecosystem function. Under changing conditions, ecosystem function is maintained when dominants decline or are lost because functionally equivalent minor species are able to substitute for them. We have tested this hypothesis with respect to ecosystem functions relating to global change. In particular, we identified five plant functional attributes—height, biomass, specific leaf area, longevity, and leaf litter quality—that determine carbon and water fluxes. We assigned values for these functional attributes to each of the graminoid species in a lightly grazed site and in a heavily grazed site in an Australian rangeland. Our resilience proposition was cast in the form of three specific hypotheses in relation to expected similarities and dissimilarities between dominant and minor species, within and between sites. Functional similarity—or ecological distance—was determined as the euclidean distance between species in functional attribute space. The analyses provide evidence in support of the resilience hypothesis. Specifically, within the lightly grazed community, dominant species were functionally more dissimilar to one another, and functionally similar species more widely separated in abundance rank, than would be expected on the basis of average ecological distances in the community. Between communities, depending on the test used, two of three, or three of four minor species in the lightly grazed community that were predicted to increase in the heavily grazed community did in fact do so. Although there has been emphasis on the importance of functional diversity in supporting the flow of ecosystem goods and services, the evidence from this study indicates that functional similarity (between dominant and minor species, and among minor species) may be equally important in ensuring persistence (resilience) of ecosystem function under changing environmental conditions.
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