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Plant competitive ability and the transitivity of competitive hierarchies change with plant age

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Plant competitive effect and response ability are known to change with plant age, however it remains unclear how competitive hierarchies among plant species change as plants age and transition between life stages. We examined the competitive interactions among seven species in all pairwise combinations in a greenhouse experiment. Competitive effect and response were measured as the relative yield (RY) for each target-neighbor species combination for both seedling and adult plants. Competitive hierarchies were constructed based on competitive effect and response scores, and we examined the degree of transitivity in the seedling and adult competitive hierarchies. The competitive effect hierarchy did not vary substantially with plant age, while the competitive response hierarchy was highly variable between juvenile and adult plants. Competitive effect and response ability were positively correlated at both plant stages. The seedling relative yield matrix was predominantly transitive, while there were far fewer transitive competitive relationships among the adult plants. The breakdown of the clear competitive hierarchy among seedlings as plants aged may explain why competition does not appear to be an active mechanism structuring some late-successional plant communities. In early-successional communities, interactions among seedlings with a clear competitive hierarchy may establish competitive ability—abundance relationships that persist as a legacy effect even though the breakdown of the competitive hierarchy among adult plants removes competition as an active mechanism structuring some late-successional plant communities.

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This research was financially supported by a fellowship from the China Scholarship Council (CSC) to SZ and grants from the Beef Cattle Research Council (BCRC) and the National Science and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) to EGL. Amanda Guy and Jenalee Mischkolz assisted with the experiment. Jenalee Mischkolz and two anonymous reviewers provided comments that substantially improved the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Eric G. Lamb.

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Zhang, S., Lamb, E.G. Plant competitive ability and the transitivity of competitive hierarchies change with plant age. Plant Ecol 213, 15–23 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11258-011-0002-4

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  • Competitive effect
  • Competitive hierarchy
  • Competitive response
  • Competitive transitivity
  • Life-stage
  • Plant age