Drought negates growth stimulation due to root herbivory in pasture grasses

Abstract

Predicted increases in extreme weather are likely to alter the interactions between organisms within ecosystems. Whilst many studies have investigated the impacts of climate change on aboveground plant–insect interactions, those belowground remain relatively unexplored. Root herbivores can be the dominant taxa in grasslands, potentially altering plant community dynamics. To better predict the impact of climate change on grasslands, we subjected four Australian pasture grasses (Cynodon dactylon, Paspalum dilatatum, Microlaena stipoides and Lolium perenne) to contrasting rainfall regimes [a press drought (i.e. sustained, moderate water stress), a pulse drought (water stress followed by periodic, infrequent deluge event) and a well-watered control], with and without root herbivores; a manual root cutting treatment was also included for comparison. Plant growth, rooting strategy, phenology and biochemistry were measured to evaluate above and belowground treatment responses. Watering treatments had a larger effect on plant productivity than root damage treatments: press drought and pulse drought treatments reduced biomass by 58% and 47%, respectively. Root herbivore damage effects were species dependent and were not always equivalent to root cutting. The combination of pulse drought and root herbivory resulted in increased root:shoot ratios for both P. dilatatum and L. perenne, as well as decreased biomass and delayed flowering time for P. dilatatum. Plant biomass responses to root damage were greatest under well-watered conditions; however, root damage also delayed or prevented investment in reproduction in at least one species. Our findings highlight the important role of soil-dwelling invertebrates for forecasting growth responses of grassland communities to future rainfall regime changes.

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Acknowledgements

This research was undertaken by KLB as part of his PhD research program at the Hawkesbury Institute for the Environment at Western Sydney University. We would like to thank Anita Wesoloski, Adam Frew, Sarah Facey, William Balmont and Silvan Dobrick for their help during the course of the experiment.

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KLB, SAP and SNJ conceived and designed the experiments. KLB performed the experiments, analyzed the data and drafted the manuscript. SAP and SNJ contributed to data interpretation and manuscript revisions.

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Correspondence to Kirk L. Barnett.

Additional information

Communicated by Evan H. DeLucia.

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Barnett, K.L., Johnson, S.N. & Power, S.A. Drought negates growth stimulation due to root herbivory in pasture grasses. Oecologia 188, 777–789 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00442-018-4244-x

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Keywords

  • Root damage
  • Grassland
  • Climate change
  • Rainfall regime
  • Phenology
  • Biotic–abiotic interactions