Exotic plants establish persistent communities
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Many exotic plants utilize early successional traits to invade disturbed sites, but in some cases these same species appear able to prevent re-establishment of late-successional and native species. Between 2002 and 2004, I studied 25 fields that represent a 52-year chronosequence of agricultural abandonment in a shrub-steppe ecosystem in Washington State, USA, to determine if exotic plants behaved as early successional species (i.e., became less abundant over time) or if they established persistent communities. Exotics maintained dominance in tilled (73% of total cover) relative to never-tilled (6% of total cover) fields throughout the chronosequence. Exotic community composition, however, changed on annual and decadal timescales. Changes in exotic community composition did not reflect typical successional patterns. For example, some exotic perennial species (e.g., Centaurea diffusa and Medicago sativa) were less common and some exotic annual species (e.g., Sissymbrium loeselii and S. altissimum) were more common in older relative to younger fields. Exotics in the study area appeared to establish communities that are resistant to re-invasion by natives, resilient to losses of individual exotic species, and as a result, maintain total exotic cover over both the short- and long-term: exotics replaced exotics. Exotics did not invade native communities and natives did not invade exotic communities across the chronosequence. These results suggest that, in disturbed sites, exotic plants establish an alternative community type that while widely variable in composition, maintains total cover over annual and decadal timescales. Identifying alternative state exotic communities and the mechanisms that explain their growth is likely to be essential for native plant restoration.
KeywordsChronosequence Facilitation nMDS Old-field Shrub-steppe Stable state
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This research was funded by USDA-NRI (# 35320-13473), the Utah State Agricultural Experimental Station, and the Switzer Foundation. I thank J. Mountjoy, C. Miller, and C. McCorkel for providing management histories; the Washington Department of Wildlife, the Methow Conservancy, and Rainier Seeds Inc. for help in the field; and K.H. Beard, G.P. Kyle, and J.M. Stark for reviewing earlier versions of this manuscript.
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